15th Annual FamilyTreeDNA Conference for Genetic Genealogy – Reunion, Reception and Keynote

Fifteen years is a VERY long time in this industry. The first conference for group project administrators took place in 2004 in Houston. The “annual” part was interrupted twice by hurricanes, and then along came Covid.

It was nothing short of WONDERFUL to be back together again. Five of us have attended all 15 conferences. Nearly half of the attendees were there for the first time. It’s always nice to engage with new people.

While the conference is open to Group Administrators, the sessions aren’t focused, for the most part, on group project administrator activities. However, some sessions are focused on optimum ways to handle and group large numbers of testers, like in surname projects. Project administration affects us all.

Many session topics reflect education, such as how phylogenetics works, or ancient DNA, or how to find your Native American ancestor. And then, of course, the keynotes are always amazing.

This was the first year the conference was blended, combining in-person and virtual.

Janine Cloud, shown here smiling as she enjoyed a presentation, manages the Groups group at FamilyTreeDNA and coordinates FamilyTreeDNA’s conference presence.

Janine shouldered the responsibility for putting this conference together, and while she had lots of help, there would have been no conference without her. I want to say a HUGE thank you to Janine.

During part of the conference, there were three session tracks to choose from, and I clearly couldn’t be in all of them simultaneously to take pictures. I also presented, and there are no photos of my session. I thought about giving my phone to someone and asking for a favor, but I didn’t want to interfere with their experience.

I was initially going to publish one article about the conference and presentations, but it simply grew too long, so I’m separating the conference experience into several, more meaningful articles. I learned something new in every session, so I hope you’ll “come along.”

Part Conference, Part Reunion

I’m taking a point of personal privilege here and posting fun photos first.

I was already excited, but when the plane was landing, and the Houston skyline came into view, I knew it would only be another hour or so before I saw my friends again. Like a little kid, I could hardly wait.

I hadn’t realized a couple of things.

First, how much I’ve missed people during the Covid “pause.” Not only was that difficult because of the disease itself and the necessary social restrictions to halt the spread, but because I lost SO MANY friends and family members. Many deaths resulted from Covid, and some were due to other things.

Both individually and cumulatively, the losses were brutal and devastating. Added on to the isolation.

Some people accumulate more family members as they age. If you had lots of siblings or several children – you’re adding to the family with new grandbabies, nieces and nephews. However, if you had a small family to begin with, and a small family yourself, your family may be rapidly shrinking instead of rapidly expanding.

That’s what has been happening to me.

My siblings are all gone now. My closest cousin who was functionally my sister passed over earlier this year.

Other than my immediate family and quilt-sisters, the people I’m the closest to are my cousins that I met through genealogy, and my genealogy friends. We have developed a bond that has endured and survived all kinds of obstacles for decades – including the grim-reaper and Covid.

None of us were or are ever assured of seeing each other again. We used to take that for granted, when we were younger, but not anymore. Now we are vividly aware, through painful experience, that none of us are invincible, nor do we know when any one of us is going to join the ancestors.

These past few years, many of us held our breath as each other suffered through Covid and family loss – praying, sewing masks when there were none, making front porch soup deliveries, and sometimes delivering care quilts. Then there were the virtual hugs at virtual funerals. I’ll not even mention the other crushingly difficult situations that have arisen during this time.

But here we were, in Houston, finally together once again. Survivors.

I didn’t realize in advance that I was attending a family reunion.

There are just no words to express the joyful reunions. People seeing each other for the first time in four and a half years, names shouted from across the room, and people literally running to embrace.

Tears, hugs, joy.

Jennifer Zinck snapped this photo of me and Janine Cloud meeting once again and graciously permitted me to use it and a few others in this article.

Speaking of Jenn, it was wonderful seeing her and her daughter as well. More joyful reunions. Can you see the chromosomes on Jenn’s dress? What fun!

Bennett Greenspan, the founder and President Emeritus of FamilyTreeDNA, “retired” a couple of years ago, but only to do what genealogists do in retirement. Genealogy, of course, and in his case, genetic genealogy. Would you expect anything less? I was thrilled for this photo op of me, Bennett, and long-time project administrator and friend, Bonny Cook.

Courtney Eberhard was kind enough to take this wonderful group photo at the Friday night reception. Left to right, Katy Rowe, Product Owner at FamilyTreeDNA; Katherine Borges, ISOGG founder; Max Blankfeld, retired co-founder of FamilyTreeDNA; Dana Leeds, creator of the Leeds method; Tim Janzen, MD, long-time genetic genealogist with an interest in Mennonite DNA; Bennett Greenspan; me and Tom Cloud, Cloud Project co-administrator. I’m sure you recognize these faces and names. I’ve discovered over the years that I’m related to at least two of these people, which is part of the fun of genealogy. Right?

Bennett and Max did humanity, particularly genealogists, an incredible service by founding FamilyTreeDNA 23 or 24 years ago. Who knew where we’d be a quarter-century later.

Those of you who know me know that I have an affinity for chocolate, especially dark chocolate. I also often take chocolate with me and pass out Ghirardelli squares. Sometimes I can be a bit of a pest and ask a lot of questions, so I learned long ago that chocolate in advance is the best form of asking forgiveness.

Mags Gaulden, my sister-of-heart, apparently agrees and was trying to save me from too much chocolate. I greatly appreciate her sacrifice on my behalf. 😊

Actually, Mags was my front-row seatmate and we had so much doggone fun. We tried, without much success, to behave. Or maybe we didn’t really try that hard!

This lovely lady, Marilyn Souders, one of the five people who have attended every conference, dressed the part and granted permission to publish her photo with these lovely helix tops. She said she found them on Etsy. Now I want one too.

I was lucky enough to get a photo with the R&D team, who were all present except Dr. Paul Maier.

To include Paul in the group picture, Dr. Miguel Vilar, at right, is holding “flat Paul.”

Trying to take selfies made us all laugh. The person with the longest arm gets to hold the phone, someone else gets to tap the button, and everyone tries to smile at the same time!

My lovely friend, Derrell Oakley Teat, who, in honor of HER birthday hand-made and brought gifts for others.

I’m always excited when young people are interested in both science and genealogy. Juniper Zinck has been attending conferences for years now and met Derrell in 2016. Derrell made Juniper a lovely critter, now named Hermie the Wormie to go with Franklin the Spider who accompanied Juniper and posed with many of us at her first conference.

I was stunned to find this lovely gift pack at my seat – everything handmade by Derrell.

Inside the package were several goodies including a hotpad, drink cozy, dishcloth and skillet handle hotpad. I came home with “conference cred” and have been using the hotpad as a mini placemat for my soup bowls.

Plus, my very own adorable little Woggley Worm, who also enjoyed the sessions.

How cute is this with a “family tree” and a tiny passport. I confess, this made me cry. So many of us have been on such adventures together, all bonded through genetic genealogy.

I wasn’t the only lucky person. I saw Derrell passing gifts out to others, too. What a wonderful, thoughtful way to celebrate your birthday.

However, Derrell wasn’t getting off the hook that easy, because the entire room “sang” to her, or at least attempted to sing to her. I’ll spare you my caterwauling! One gentleman who is a retired opera singer sang Happy Birthday to her property, but sadly,  I missed it.

Derrell is “retiring” as a project administrator, so we suspect it will be the last time she joins us at the conference.

Before I close this section, I need to say a personal thank you to several people who brought me goodies and mementos from where they live. Pins, remembrances, and chocolate from around the world. Did I mention chocolate? Thank you. Thank you. I was quite surprised to be the lucky recipient and oh so grateful. I’m still rationing the chocolate so I can enjoy it and think fondly of my years of friendship with the gifter.

Thank you, Bennett

The R&D team, without Paul, but including Bennett Greenspan, who began it all.

Bennett has certainly earned his place as a team member. I’d say “honorary member,” but Bennett is still quite involved with his extensive research and focus.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I approached Bennett, often at conferences, and said, “I have an idea,” or “I’ve observed something interesting,” or, “We need to update and redo the mitochondrial tree.”

Bennett has always been an advocate for scientific research to advance our knowledge about the intersection of historical and genetic information and discoveries.

Sometimes Bennett asked intense questions, but if your ideas stood up to scrutiny, his answers were always some version of, “Let’s do it!” Then, you were expected to do just that.

While Bennett did officially retire, his legacy never will. In fact, it’s still being written. The Million Mito Project with the updated MitoTree and accompanying MitoDiscover, actively under development and currently planned for 2024, began with his approval and has his signature all over it.

The discoveries made under Bennett’s stewardship have changed lives in untold and immeasurable ways. Bennett’s vision didn’t just launch a company, it birthed an industry that has expanded and continues to expand exponentially, beyond even Bennett’s wildest dreams. He was just a genealogist, trying to reassemble his family.

The 2004 FamilyTreeDNA conference was the first conference anywhere focused solely on genetic genealogy, specifically for project administrators who act as shepherds for projects of interest to them and their project members.

This week in Houston, that legacy of generosity and helping each other also lived on.

Bless your heart, Bennett, in all the best ways, and thank you from the bottom of mine.

The Conference

Check-in began, goodie bags were passed out (thank you, FamilyTreeDNA), and the traditional reception occurred on Friday evening. FamilyTreeDNA had arranged unofficial tutoring sessions with volunteers on Friday afternoon for those who arrived early.

My first view of the tables below where the conference rooms were located and meals were served. Breakfast and lunch were included.

I could hardly wait to get down there!

Everyone was engaged. There was lots of visiting and catching up.

The conference is small enough that attendees have the opportunity to visit with, encourage, and exchange ideas with everyone over the three-day event.

Over the years, so many ideas and collaborations have been birthed and problems solved at these tables.

Lior Rauchberger, the CEO of myDNA which includes FamilyTreeDNA opened the conference remotely from Australia, welcoming everyone.

Thank you, Lior, for continuing this fine tradition of education and excellence.

Clayton Conder, VP of Marketing, and Katy Rowe, Product Manager, shared emcee duties for the weekend.

Years ago, Max and Bennett established the tradition of recognizing the administrators who had passed away since the last conference.

I had a huge lump in my throat. Not only did I know many of these people, four were co-administrators with me on projects. And then, there was legendary Bob McLaren, loved by all.

Making Connections

Genealogy, including genetic genealogy, is about making connections.

At conferences, I have this love-hate relationship with the FamilySearch app’s feature called “Relatives Around Me.” Mostly love!

You are connected to the FamilySearch “one world tree,” and have the app installed on your phone. At a conference or any place with multiple people who have the app open, you can click on the “Relatives Around Me” tab, which then displays, according to the FamilySearch tree, who you’re related to.

This app is lots of fun and a conversation starter.

Of course, caveats always apply about validating the information, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used this tool to find cousins and share information.

Courtney and I discovered that we are confirmed 8th cousins three times removed.

The bad news is that once you encourage people to use “Relatives Around Me,” you’re going to lose your audience for the next 15 minutes as they find each other and compare ancestors!

The Keynote

Stephanie Gilbert – Sojurns in Truth, My First Time Travel

Stephanie Gilbert delivered an AWESOME keynote, in addition to a second session the following day.

Stephanie told her stories for the first time as presentations, to us, and what a stories they were. Things every genealogist dreams of, like finding your ancestors’ homes or recovering their possessions, but even more challenging and emotionally difficult for the descendants of enslaved people.

Stephanie was adopted by a loving African-American family. Her first session told how she traced her adoptive family’s heritage to the Richland Farm in Maryland, where their ancestors were enslaved.

By HoCoHistory – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60128519

Stephanie’s ancestors were not slave hands, at least some of them, but worked in the “big house,” pictured here in 2014.

Like many genealogists, Stephanie began by asking family members about their known history.

Stephanie asked Cousin Bert to tell her what she knew about the family. Cousin Bert knew some things, but Stephanie’s digging led to far more – things nobody knew.

I don’t want to steal any of Stephanie’s thunder, in case you have the opportunity to hear her speak, or listen to the recorded sessions if you signed up as a conference attendee – but she’s one of the best storytellers I’ve had the honor of listening to.

You could have heard a pin drop as she told of her formerly enslaved ancestor, Oliver Cromwell Gilbert, a “house slave” at Walnut Grove, son of Cynthia, the enslaved cook. Unlike many enslaved people who could not read or write, Oliver penned a precious manuscript, now in Stephanie’s possession.

Stephanie connected with the Watkins family who formerly enslaved her family and has been able to repair many of the “fractures of slavery.” The family had additional information that allowed Stephanie to learn more about two earlier generations of her family, AND, eventually, to own many of the items that her ancestors lived with and touched on the plantation.

Stephanie visits, yet today, on her yearly sojourn where she sits peacefully and communes with those ancestors who still speak in whispers.

You can read more of Stephanie’s story here, here and here.

Finding Suzanne

Stephanie’s second presentation was about her own adoption journey and connecting with her biological family.

Stephanie was known at the time of adoption, when she was not a newborn, as “Baby Girl Rice.”

Stephanie would come to learn that, in essence, her mother was forced into placing Stephanie, then Baby Girl Rice, for adoption. When the time came to sign the papers, her mother informed the agency that she had changed her mind and was told that she could not do so.

The baby was taken, adopted, and renamed Stephanie with her new family.

Clearly, that was unethical and perhaps illegal, but it’s also water long under that bridge.

Stephanie’s journey is not only fascinating, it’s incredibly inspirational.

She takes us to the filling station, where a chance meeting between her husband and a man in line led to her father’s family, and a day later, to her father.

Stephanie shared with us the truly “stranger than fiction” lives of her two biological parents, how and when they met in the most unlikely circumstances.

During her presentations, Stephanie made a couple of resonant points.

We are approaching the last opportunity to reconnect with ancestors from the mid-1800s using DNA. By this, she means that the generations we need to test that carry enough autosomal DNA of our ancestors are passing away. This is particularly important for people who lose their lineage before the 1860s when slavery ended. We are now at the 5 or 6 generation inflection point.

Stephanie didn’t mention this, but for those who were not enslaved, reaching back before the 1850 census is challenging. In 1850, all family members were listed by name, but in 1840 and earlier, just the head of household.

Furthermore, older generations may not even realize they possess valuable information and take that library of information along with them into the great beyond when they pass away. I wish desperately I had known what to ask my great-aunt before she died in the 1990s.

Stephanie has focused on repairing the fractures of slavery, both through genetics and relationships with people today. For example, she established a relationship with the family who enslaved her ancestors and, through that relationship, was able to discover even more about her family. She has also reunited with her biological family, another type of fracture that has been repaired, and relationships recovered.

The Sale Started

Keeping with tradition, the holiday sale starts with the conference, and the sale prices are available, here, now. If you’re interested in the Big Y-700 test, now’s a great time.

Join me soon for the second day of the FamilyTreeDNA 2023 conference.


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6 thoughts on “15th Annual FamilyTreeDNA Conference for Genetic Genealogy – Reunion, Reception and Keynote

  1. My mother-in-law, Kit 2627, had a MtDNA match with Bennett Greenspan at about 400 years MRCA. It does not show up now. ???
    John Davidson

  2. Thank you, Roberta…

    I’ve been on your DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy email for many years…did mtDNA in 2006 as I saw it on the Today Show..i.e. “Out of Africa” with Spencer Wells…FF test in 2010 when it came out. Trying to make sense of this since the beginning…

    This was my 1st Conference & thoroughly enjoyed it….meeting many new people. When I said that Arlo Guthrie was my 3rd cousin, a man at my table got exited & said…”I was a graduate Assistant @ MIT in the 1980’s & helped work on the “markers” for Huntington’s Disease” (I knew that Arlo’s father, Woody died of Huntington’s). Paul Watkins also in the ancestry of Stephanie Gilbert’s story above. You mention Marilyn Souders…I met her @ Houston Airport trying to go to Dallas as I was too.

    Thank you for all you do, Roberta…

    To Be Continued..
    Sandy Aaronson

  3. Wonderful summary Roberta!!! For the first time, I was fortunate to be included (virtually) as this year I was accepted as a co-admin. for my husband’s surname project. Attending this conference, even tho not in person, was exciting to hear and learn from knowledgeable and experienced speaker’s about the very diverse and in depth aspects of Genetic Genealogy and Project administration. I watched every possible talk given – disappointed yours wasn’t “live” for me online but plan to watch all recordings again. And I agree Stephanie’s talks were so enjoyable as well as educational re: research methods! Another Plus in my estimation, is that now I have a feeling of some real connection to FTDNA, I’ve “met” the people behind the “screen” and found them to be warm, friendly, helpful people and this experience was a perfect example of creating that “personal” touch that so many companies don’t (or aren’t able to) convey.

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