Some of you may know that I’m speaking again at the Family Tree DNA Conference for project administrators being held in November in Houston. This is the 11th conference, and I’ve attended them all.
I want to first and foremost thank Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld for hosting this legendary conference, for the 11th time, and for the opportunity and honor to speak to the attendees.
As I’ve been getting my thoughts and my presentation together for this conference, a couple of things have come to mind that I’d like to share.
My conference topic is “Y DNA to Autosomal Case Study – Kicking it Up a Notch.”
I know, the title doesn’t sound terribly interesting, but believe me, after beginning innocently enough, it turned out to be the project from Hell. Followed by very interesting discoveries whereby it redeemed itself from Hell.
The session description is:
The Crumley surname project was relatively small and had already answered the burning question for which it was created. Had it served its only purpose? What else could be done? The project administrators transitioned this Y DNA project to a Y-plus-autosomal DNA project quite successfully – and made some surprising discoveries along the way. How did they go from a base of 5 to more than 50 participants in a few weeks? What did they discover? How do the descendants of two men born in the 1730s compare autosomally? (Yes, we have autosomal comparative data to 9th cousins.) What can you learn and how can existing Y projects become the foundation of a hugely successful autosomal project?
But I have to tell you the truth….I made myself insane with this project. I have over 50 people that had to be hand compared to each other – one by one. If you’re counting, that’s 1250+ individual comparisons. The results had to be compiled – which resulted in a spreadsheet of almost 9000 rows. The relationships of the participants had to be defined, their genealogy collected and assembled and the results analyzed. Which is what, of course, led to the discoveries I’ll be discussing at the conference.
During the time when I was doing all of those comparisons, I asked myself over and over, “why the dickens am I doing this?”
I realized sometime in the middle of the night last night – the answer to “why I’m doing this,” is really the answer to all of the questions about genetic genealogy research.
In fact, it’s exactly like this quilt.
Ok, so what is a quilt doing in the middle of this genetic genealogy article?
Is it even a quilt?
It’s not square like a quilt…but it has blocks – well triangle blocks, three layers and a binding…and it was made by a quilter. Me. So it must be a quilt – but it’s unlike any other quilt in many ways.
Thinking Outside the Box
That’s at once the disease and the cure! And it’s the answer.
And it all started with Bennett Greenspan.
In the middle of the night, I realized that the fundamental questions in all of genetic genealogy research begin with the words, “Why can’t we…..”
Had Bennett Greenspan not asked that question, and not once, but repeatedly, until he received a satisfactory answer, the field of genetic genealogy would never have existed.
For those not familiar with this legendary story, Bennett, a genealogist (just like the rest of us) back in the prehistoric days of 1999, wanted to know why he couldn’t compare the Y chromosome of one man with a particular surname to another man with the same surname to see if they shared a common ancestor. He took that question to scientists who worked with the Y chromosome. Let’s just say the scientists weren’t terribly receptive.
Bennett was politely refused, then more firmly refused, but Bennett persisted until Michael Hammer gave up resisting and just ran the test to get rid of Bennett. But that didn’t work either, because Bennett had more questions. Couldn’t someone form a company to do this? Couldn’t Michael Hammer’s lab at the University of Arizona run those tests for that company, which would come to be known as Family Tree DNA. Questions begat questions. History was, unknowingly, being made. The answers and results of course, we all know about…but had it not been for Bennett’s bravery to ask that initial question – and to persist in the face of rejection and adversity – none of this would have happened.
Bennett didn’t have a crystal ball. He couldn’t have known that an entire industry would evolve from his simple act of genealogical frustration. But Bennett is who he is and he continued to ask that question and pursue the answer.
As I spent days and days working through the 50 participants’ data in the Crumley project, I often wanted to quit, but I’m either too anal or too OCD or too persistent to do that. (No, we’re not voting on that topic:) I had to finish. And thank goodness I did, because the discoveries were there waiting for me – but I couldn’t have known that until AFTER I did the work that revealed them. Had I stopped or never begun, I would never have known. Same with Bennett – thank goodness he persisted.
So first, I had to first ask the question, “Why can’t we….?” Or more appropriate, “What can we…?” and proceed to find out.
In the field of genetic genealogy, and much more broadly applicable as well, if you never ask that question, you’ll never be wrong or make mistakes. You’ll never be made fun of. Your work will never be criticized. You’ll never be rejected. You’ll be entirely safe.
But you know what else????
You’ll never be right either.
You’ll never push the frontier.
You’ll never inspire other people to ask that same question.
You’ll never make that discovery.
Because you never took the risk of thinking, and acting, outside the box.
For being brave enough to persist in the face of adversity…
For allowing that question to burn you to action…
For the revolution you started…
For being a leader, an inspiration and our champion…
For providing a supportive and encouraging environment to conduct our own personal and broader genetic genealogy research…
For facilitating our insanity as citizen scientists…
For thinking outside of the box…