2018 – The Year of the Segment

Looking in the rear view mirror, what a year! Some days it’s been hard to catch your breath things have been moving so fast.

What were the major happenings, how did they affect genetic genealogy and what’s coming in 2019?

The SNiPPY Award

First of all, I’m giving an award this year. The SNiPPY.

Yea, I know it’s kinda hokey, but it’s my way of saying a huge thank you to someone in this field who has made a remarkable contribution and that deserves special recognition.

Who will it be this year?

Drum roll…….

The 2018 SNiPPY goes to…

DNAPainter – The 2018 SNiPPY award goes to DNAPainter, without question. Applause, everyone, applause! And congratulations to Jonny Perl, pictured below at Rootstech!

Jonny Perl created this wonderful, visual tool that allows you to paint your matches with people on your chromosomes, assigning the match to specific ancestors.

I’ve written about how to use the tool  with different vendors results and have discovered many different ways to utilize the painted segments. The DNA Painter User Group is here on Facebook. I use DNAPainter EVERY SINGLE DAY to solve a wide variety of challenges.

What else has happened this year? A lot!

Ancient DNA – Academic research seldom reports on Y and mitochondrial DNA today and is firmly focused on sequencing ancient DNA. Ancient genome sequencing has only recently been developed to a state where at least some remains can be successfully sequenced, but it’s going great guns now. Take a look at Jennifer Raff’s article in Forbes that discusses ancient DNA findings in the Americas, Europe, Southeast Asia and perhaps most surprising, a first generation descendant of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan.

From Early human dispersals within the Americas by Moreno-Mayer et al, Science 07 Dec 2018

Inroads were made into deeper understanding of human migration in the Americas as well in the paper Early human dispersals within the Americas by Moreno-Mayer et al.

I look for 2019 and on into the future to hold many more revelations thanks to ancient DNA sequencing as well as using those sequences to assist in understanding the migration patterns of ancient people that eventually became us.

Barbara Rae-Venter and the Golden State Killer Case

Using techniques that adoptees use to identify their close relatives and eventually, their parents, Barbara Rae-Venter assisted law enforcement with identifying the man, Joseph DeAngelo, accused (not yet convicted) of being the Golden State Killer (GSK).

A very large congratulations to Barbara, a retired patent attorney who is also a genealogist. Nature recognized Ms. Rae-Venter as one of 2018’s 10 People Who Mattered in Science.

DNA in the News

DNA is also represented on the 2018 Nature list by Viviane Slon, a palaeogeneticist who discovered an ancient half Neanderthal, half Denisovan individual and sequenced their DNA and He JianKui, a Chinese scientist who claims to have created a gene-edited baby which has sparked widespread controversy. As of the end of the year, He Jiankui’s research activities have been suspended and he is reportedly sequestered in his apartment, under guard, although the details are far from clear.

In 2013, 23andMe patented the technology for designer babies and I removed my kit from their research program. I was concerned at the time that this technology knife could cut two ways, both for good, eliminating fatal disease-causing mutations and also for ethically questionable practices, such as eugenics. I was told at the time that my fears were unfounded, because that “couldn’t be done.” Well, 5 years later, here we are. I expect the debate about the ethics and eventual regulation of gene-editing will rage globally for years to come.

Elizabeth Warren’s DNA was also in the news when she took a DNA test in response to political challenges. I wrote about what those results meant scientifically, here. This topic became highly volatile and politicized, with everyone seeming to have a very strongly held opinion. Regardless of where you fall on that opinion spectrum (and no, please do not post political comments as they will not be approved), the topic is likely to surface again in 2019 due to the fact that Elizabeth Warren has just today announced her intention to run for President. The good news is that DNA testing will likely be discussed, sparking curiosity in some people, perhaps encouraging them to test. The bad news is that some of the discussion may be unpleasant at best, and incorrect click-bait at worst. We’ve already had a rather unpleasant sampling of this.

Law Enforcement and Genetic Genealogy

The Golden State Killer case sparked widespread controversy about using GedMatch and potentially other genetic genealogy data bases to assist in catching people who have committed violent crimes, such as rape and murder.

GedMatch, the database used for the GSK case has made it very clear in their terms and conditions that DNA matches may be used for both adoptees seeking their families and for other uses, such as law enforcement seeking matches to DNA sequenced during a criminal investigation. Since April 2018, more than 15 cold case investigations have been solved using the same technique and results at GedMatch. Initially some people removed their DNA from GedMatch, but it appears that the overwhelming sentiment, based on uploads, is that people either aren’t concerned or welcome the opportunity for their DNA matches to assist apprehending criminals.

Parabon Nanolabs in May established a genetic genealogy division headed by CeCe Moore who has worked in the adoptee community for the past several years. The division specializes in DNA testing forensic samples and then assisting law enforcement with the associated genetic genealogy.

Currently, GedMatch is the only vendor supporting the use of forensic sample matching. Neither 23anMe nor Ancestry allow uploaded data, and MyHeritage and Family Tree DNA’s terms of service currently preclude this type of use.

MyHeritage

Wow talk about coming onto the DNA world stage with a boom.

MyHeritage went from a somewhat wobbly DNA start about 2 years ago to rolling out a chromosome browser at the end of January and adding important features such as SmartMatching which matches your DNA and your family trees. Add triangulation to this mixture, along with record matching, and you’re got a #1 winning combination.

It was Gilad Japhet, the MyHeritage CEO who at Rootstech who christened 2018 “The Year of the Segment,” and I do believe he was right. Additionally, he announced that MyHeritage partnered with the adoption community by offering 15,000 free kits to adoptees.

In November, MyHeritage hosted MyHeritage LIVE, their first user conference in Oslo, Norway which focused on both their genealogical records offerings as well as DNA. This was a resounding success and I hope MyHeritage will continue to sponsor conferences and invest in DNA. You can test your DNA at MyHeritage or upload your results from other vendors (instructions here). You can follow my journey and the conference in Olso here, here, here, here and here.

GDPR

GDPR caused a lot of misery, and I’m glad the implementation is behind us, but the the ripples will be affecting everyone for years to come.

GDPR, the European Data Protection Regulation which went into effect on May 25,  2018 has been a mixed and confusing bag for genetic genealogy. I think the concept of users being in charge and understanding what is happened with their data, and in this case, their data plus their DNA, is absolutely sound. The requirements however, were created without any consideration to this industry – which is small by comparison to the Googles and Facebooks of the world. However, the Googles and Facebooks of the world along with many larger vendors seem to have skated, at least somewhat.

Other companies shut their doors or restricted their offerings in other ways, such as World Families Network and Oxford Ancestors. Vendors such as Ancestry and Family Tree DNA had to make unpopular changes in how their users interface with their software – in essence making genetic genealogy more difficult without any corresponding positive return. The potential fines, 20 million plus Euro for any company holding data for EU residents made it unwise to ignore the mandates.

In the genetic genealogy space, the shuttering of both YSearch and MitoSearch was heartbreaking, because that was the only location where you could actually compare Y STR and mitochondrial HVR1/2 results. Not everyone uploaded their results, and the sites had not been updated in a number of years, but the closure due to GDPR was still a community loss.

Today, mitoydna.org, a nonprofit comprised of genetic genealogists, is making strides in replacing that lost functionality, plus, hopefully more.

On to more positive events.

Family Tree DNA

In April, Family Tree DNA announced a new version of the Big Y test, the Big Y-500 in which at least 389 additional STR markers are included with the Big Y test, for free. If you’re lucky, you’ll receive between 389 and 439 new markers, depending on how many STR markers above 111 have quality reads. All customers are guaranteed a minimum of 500 STR markers in total. Matching was implemented in December.

These additional STR markers allow genealogists to assemble additional line marker mutations to more granularly identify specific male lineages. In other words, maybe I can finally figure out a line marker mutation that will differentiate my ancestor’s line from other sons of my founding ancestor😊

In June, Family Tree DNA announced that they had named more than 100,000 SNPs which means many haplogroup additions to the Y tree. Then, in September, Family Tree DNA published their Y haplotree, with locations, publicly for all to reference.

I was very pleased to see this development, because Family Tree DNA clearly has the largest Y database in the industry, by far, and now everyone can reap the benefits.

In October, Family Tree DNA published their mitochondrial tree publicly as well, with corresponding haplogroup locations. It’s nice that Family Tree DNA continues to be the science company.

You can test your Y DNA, mitochondrial or autosomal (Family Finder) at Family Tree DNA. They are the only vendor offering full Y and mitochondrial services complete with matching.

2018 Conferences

Of course, there are always the national conferences we’re familiar with, but more and more, online conferences are becoming available, as well as some sessions from the more traditional conferences.

I attended Rootstech in Salt Lake City in February (brrrr), which was lots of fun because I got to meet and visit with so many people including Mags Gaulden, above, who is a WikiTree volunteer and writes at Grandma’s Genes, but as a relatively expensive conference to attend, Rootstech was pretty miserable. Rootstech has reportedly made changes and I hope it’s much better for attendees in 2019. My attendance is very doubtful, although I vacillate back and forth.

On the other hand, the MyHeritage LIVE conference was amazing with both livestreamed and recorded sessions which are now available free here along with many others at Legacy Family Tree Webinars.

Family Tree University held a Virtual DNA Conference in June and those sessions, along with others, are available for subscribers to view.

The Virtual Genealogical Association was formed for those who find it difficult or impossible to participate in local associations. They too are focused on education via webinars.

Genetic Genealogy Ireland continues to provide their yearly conference sessions both livestreamed and recorded for free. These aren’t just for people with Irish genealogy. Everyone can benefit and I enjoy them immensely.

Bottom line, you can sit at home and educate yourself now. Technology is wonderful!

2019 Conferences

In 2019, I’ll be speaking at the National Genealogical Society Family History Conference, Journey of Discovery, in St. Charles, providing the Special Thursday Session titled “DNA: King Arthur’s Mighty Genetic Lightsaber” about how to use DNA to break through brick walls. I’ll also see attendees at Saturday lunch when I’ll be providing a fun session titled “Twists and Turns in the Genetic Road.” This is going to be a great conference with a wonderful lineup of speakers. Hope to see you there.

There may be more speaking engagements at conferences on my 2019 schedule, so stay tuned!

The Leeds Method

In September, Dana Leeds publicized The Leeds Method, another way of grouping your matches that clusters matches in a way that indicates your four grandparents.

I combine the Leeds method with DNAPainter. Great job Dana!

Genetic Affairs

In December, Genetic Affairs introduced an inexpensive subscription reporting and visual clustering methodology, but you can try it for free.

I love this grouping tool. I have already found connections I didn’t know existed previously. I suggest joining the Genetic Affairs User Group on Facebook.

DNAGedcom.com

I wrote an article in January about how to use the DNAGedcom.com client to download the trees of all of your matches and sort to find specific surnames or locations of their ancestors.

However, in December, DNAGedcom.com added another feature with their new DNAGedcom client just released that downloads your match information from all vendors, compiles it and then forms clusters. They have worked with Dana Leeds on this, so it’s a combination of the various methodologies discussed above. I have not worked with the new tool yet, as it has just been released, but Kitty Cooper has and writes about it here.  If you are interested in this approach, I would suggest joining the Facebook DNAGedcom User Group.

Rootsfinder

I have not had a chance to work with Rootsfinder beyond the very basics, but Rootsfinder provides genetic network displays for people that you match, as well as triangulated views. Genetic networks visualizations are great ways to discern patterns. The tool creates match or triangulation groups automatically for you.

Training videos are available at the website and you can join the Rootsfinder DNA Tools group at Facebook.

Chips and Imputation

Illumina, the chip maker that provides the DNA chips that most vendors use to test changed from the OmniExpress to the GSA chip during the past year. Older chips have been available, but won’t be forever.

The newer GSA chip is only partially compatible with the OmniExpress chip, providing limited overlap between the older and the new results. This has forced the vendors to use imputation to equalize the playing field between the chips, so to speak.

This has also caused a significant hardship for GedMatch who is now in the position of trying to match reasonably between many different chips that sometimes overlap minimally. GedMatch introduced Genesis as a sandbox beta version previously, but are now in the process of combining regular GedMatch and Genesis into one. Yes, there are problems and matching challenges. Patience is the key word as the various vendors and GedMatch adapt and improve their required migration to imputation.

DNA Central

In June Blaine Bettinger announced DNACentral, an online monthly or yearly subscription site as well as a monthly newsletter that covers news in the genetic genealogy industry.

Many educators in the industry have created seminars for DNACentral. I just finished recording “Getting the Most out of Y DNA” for Blaine.

Even though I work in this industry, I still subscribed – initially to show support for Blaine, thinking I might not get much out of the newsletter. I’m pleased to say that I was wrong. I enjoy the newsletter and will be watching sessions in the Course Library and the Monthly Webinars soon.

If you or someone you know is looking for “how to” videos for each vendor, DNACentral offers “Now What” courses for Ancestry, MyHeritage, 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and Living DNA in addition to topic specific sessions like the X chromosome, for example.

Social Media

2018 has seen a huge jump in social media usage which is both bad and good. The good news is that many new people are engaged. The bad news is that people often given faulty advice and for new people, it’s very difficult (nigh on impossible) to tell who is credible and who isn’t. I created a Help page for just this reason.

You can help with this issue by recommending subscribing to these three blogs, not just reading an article, to newbies or people seeking answers.

Always feel free to post links to my articles on any social media platform. Share, retweet, whatever it takes to get the words out!

The general genetic genealogy social media group I would recommend if I were to select only one would be Genetic Genealogy Tips and Techniques. It’s quite large but well-managed and remains positive.

I’m a member of many additional groups, several of which are vendor or interest specific.

Genetic Snakeoil

Now the bad news. Everyone had noticed the popularity of DNA testing – including shady characters.

Be careful, very VERY careful who you purchase products from and where you upload your DNA data.

If something is free, and you’re not within a well-known community, then YOU ARE THE PRODUCT. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If it sounds shady or questionable, it’s probably that and more, or less.

If reputable people and vendors tell you that no, they really can’t determine your Native American tribe, for example, no other vendor can either. Just yesterday, a cousin sent me a link to a “tribe” in Canada that will, “for $50, we find one of your aboriginal ancestors and the nation stamps it.” On their list of aboriginal people we find one of my ancestors who, based on mitochondrial DNA tests, is clearly NOT aboriginal. Snake oil comes in lots of flavors with snake oil salesmen looking to prey on other people’s desires.

When considering DNA testing or transfers, make sure you fully understand the terms and conditions, where your DNA is going, who is doing what with it, and your recourse. Yes, read every single word of those terms and conditions. For more about legalities, check out Judy Russell’s blog.

Recommended Vendors

All those DNA tests look yummy-good, but in terms of vendors, I heartily recommend staying within the known credible vendors, as follows (in alphabetical order).

For genetic genealogy for ethnicity AND matching:

  • 23andMe
  • Ancestry
  • Family Tree DNA
  • GedMatch (not a vendor because they don’t test DNA, but a reputable third party)
  • MyHeritage

You can read about Which DNA Test is Best here although I need to update this article to reflect the 2018 additions by MyHeritage.

Understand that both 23andMe and Ancestry will sell your DNA if you consent and if you consent, you will not know who is using your DNA, where, or for what purposes. Neither Family Tree DNA, GedMatch, MyHeritage, Genographic Project, Insitome, Promethease nor LivingDNA sell your DNA.

The next group of vendors offers ethnicity without matching:

  • Genographic Project by National Geographic Society
  • Insitome
  • LivingDNA (currently working on matching, but not released yet)

Health (as a consumer, meaning you receive the results)

Medical (as a contributor, meaning you are contributing your DNA for research)

  • 23andMe
  • Ancestry
  • DNA.Land (not a testing vendor, doesn’t test DNA)

There are a few other niche vendors known for specific things within the genetic genealogy community, many of whom are mentioned in this article, but other than known vendors, buyer beware. If you don’t see them listed or discussed on my blog, there’s probably a reason.

What’s Coming in 2019

Just like we couldn’t have foreseen much of what happened in 2018, we don’t have access to a 2019 crystal ball, but it looks like 2019 is taking off like a rocket. We do know about a few things to look for:

  • MyHeritage is waiting to see if envelope and stamp DNA extractions are successful so that they can be added to their database.
  • www.totheletterDNA.com is extracting (attempting to) and processing DNA from stamps and envelopes for several people in the community. Hopefully they will be successful.
  • LivingDNA has been working on matching since before I met with their representative in October of 2017 in Dublin. They are now in Beta testing for a few individuals, but they have also just changed their DNA processing chip – so how that will affect things and how soon they will have matching ready to roll out the door is unknown.
  • Ancestry did a 2018 ethnicity update, integrating ethnicity more tightly with Genetic Communities, offered genetic traits and made some minor improvements this year, along with adding one questionable feature – showing your matches the location where you live as recorded in your profile. (23andMe subsequently added the same feature.) Ancestry recently said that they are promising exciting new tools for 2019, but somehow I doubt that the chromosome browser that’s been on my Christmas list for years will be forthcoming. Fingers crossed for something new and really useful. In the mean time, we can download our DNA results and upload to MyHeritage, Family Tree DNA and GedMatch for segment matching, as well as utilize Ancestry’s internal matching tools. DNA+tree matching, those green leaf shared ancestor hints, is still their strongest feature.
  • The Family Tree DNA Conference for Project Administrators will be held March 22-24 in Houston this year, and I’m hopeful that they will have new tools and announcements at that event. I’m looking forward to seeing many old friends in Houston in March.

Here’s what I know for sure about 2019 – it’s going to be an amazing year. We as a community and also as individual genealogists will be making incredible discoveries and moving the ball forward. I can hardly wait to see what quandaries I’ve solved a year from now.

What mysteries do you want to unravel?

I’d like to offer a big thank you to everyone who made 2018 wonderful and a big toast to finding lots of new ancestors and breaking down those brick walls in 2019.

Happy New Year!!!

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some (but not all) of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

Thank YOU for Making DNAeXplained the #1 Genealogy Blog

Yesterday morning, I received an unexpected gift.

Let me tell you one of my guilty pleasure secrets.

I read Randy Seaver’s Genea-Musings on my phone laying in bed every morning.  It’s my way of getting my day started off on the right foot.

When I received the e-mail saying that yesterday’s article included “Selected Genealogy Website Traffic Rankings” as of December 29th from Alexa.com, an international website traffic monitoring site, I was excited to see who was on the list and what Randy had to say.

I always look forward to discovering new resources and what they might produce for my genealogy. I was hoping to find a new gem hidden here. I did, but not exactly what I was expecting!

Randy divided his results into two categories, companies including websites and then blogs. Blogs offer a different type of content than websites.

I wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the top 5 in the company/website category.

I was, however, shocked to see the #1 genealogy blog.

That’s not just GENETIC genealogy blogs, but ALL genealogy blogs.

If you would have told me back in July 2012 when I first started DNAeXplained that New Years just 5 years and a few months later would be celebrated by not only ANY genetic genealogy blog being #1, but DNAeXplained being that #1 blog, well, I would have wondered what you were smoking.

Of course, being curious, I checked to see where DNAeXplained ranks with the websites.

It fell just after Steve Morse’s stevemorse.org and just before…are you sitting down…Rootsweb.com.  I have to tell you, I feel terrible that Rootsweb isn’t getting more hits. Rootsweb is a wonderful genealogical resource, often neglected today in favor of social media.

That puts DNAeXplained at about number 58, which isn’t bad at all considering that I’m not selling any products nor have any database lookup functions like Steve Morse’s free searches.

To say I’m thrilled is an understatement.

Genetic Genealogy Leads the Pack

The not-so-subtle message here is that genetic genealogy is no longer the undervalued step-child of genealogy.  My blog and other resources that help people understand and utilize the messages carried from our ancestors and found in our DNA today are clearly some of the most popular genealogy sites on the internet.

First and foremost, a huge, and I do mean HUGE thank you to all of my readers who visit DNAeXplained, subscribe (the “follow” box in upper right hand corner of the main page) and search for answers to your questions.

Needless to say, this blog wouldn’t be #1 without all of YOU. I’m extremely humbled by your confidence and support. It’s sometimes awfully quiet sitting alone at my keyboard, but these numbers make your presence felt in the most wonderful way. Thank you.

I try to find innovative ways to make this blog super-useful.

In addition to the 52 Ancestors series, I’ve also begun both a Concepts and Glossary series in an effort to make finding answers easier and more understandable.  Take a look and remember, I’m always open to suggestions.  In fact, many articles originate with your questions and comments.

If you’re not already aware, this blog is fully keyword searchable in the upper right hand corner search box.  I see so many questions on social media that I’ve already answered in an article.

Speaking of questions, I want to be sure that you know that it’s perfectly fine to share the link to any blog article I’ve written on Facebook or anyplace else.  Please DO post links to articles!  Copying and pasting the actual content is another matter and violates copyright, but posting the link is quick and easy. You can even post to your own pages by using the Facebook and Twitter links at the bottom of each article.

If you’re interested in copyright law, dos and don’ts, please read Judy Russell’s articles on this topic.  You’ll notice that Judy’s blog, The Legal Genealogist, also placed in the top 5. Judy’s blog is pure enjoyment and every Sunday is DNA day. Congratulations Judy!

Another genetic genealogy blog in the top 5 is Blaine Bettinger’s The Genetic Genealogist that celebrated it’s 10 year anniversary in 2017.  Congratulations on both fronts, Blaine.

Speaking of other bloggers, I want to congratulate each and every one, including Randy himself.  Lots of effort is invested in blog articles that are shared freely with all.

Please take this opportunity to read Randy’s article (subscribe to Genea-Musings if you haven’t already) and find a couple sites or blogs on his list that you’re not already familiar with. Get a mug of something hot (here in the VERY FRIGID USA), put your feet up by a nice warm fire and enjoy!

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

GeneaBlog Awards and GeneAwards

geneablog-awards

Tamura Jones’ blog, Modern Software Experience, has been awarding GeneaBlog Awards since 2006. I’ve been fortunate enough in the past to garner a mention for individual articles, but this year, I hit the motherlode.

I’m honored that Tamura has recognized DNA-Explained as the Best All-Around Genetic Genealogy Blog in his 2016 GeneaBlog Awards, one of only four awards he gave this year.

I’m in fine company, mind you, in 2016 and earlier as well.

I found it very interesting to view the awards from 2008-2015, listed at the bottom of the 2016 awards. If you click on his Awards page, you can see Awards back through 2006 and several “Best and Worst” articles in his GeneAwards series as well, including for 2016.

geneawards

Guess who garnered the “worst new app” for 2016. If you guessed We’re Related, you’re right. Never let the truth interfere with a good story. I’m with you Tamura!

One of my favorite all-around blogs is ClueWagon, which Tamura has consistently mentioned over the years. One of the reasons I love ClueWagon is that Kerry makes me laugh. Every time. How can you not love ClueWagon? I mean, her tag line reads, “My name is Kerry. I like dead people.” Oh, and if you want to read about what Kerry has to say about why your new Ancestry DNA matches don’t have trees, click here.

Blaine Bettinger’s blog, The Genetic Genealogist, was honored by Tamura back in 2008, in the genetic genealogy dark ages. Blaine’s blog was all of a year old in 2008! In fact, I think it was the only Genetic Genealogy blog back then. My how times have changed!

In 2015, Jim Bartlett’s wonderful blog, Segmentology, was awarded Best New Genetic Blog. Now don’t be confused by this, Jim isn’t new to genetic genealogy. In fact, I found him in the 2005 photos I took at the Family Tree DNA Genetic Genealogy Conference held in Washington DC at the National Geographic Society. It just took the rest of us all that time into nagging Jim into blogging.

Thanks Tamura for having the love for genealogy to do this every year and taking the time to create your realistic, thought-provoking articles and entertaining product reviews. Love them or hate them – you make all of them interesting – and hopefully save the rest of us a lot of frustration and heartache along the way!

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Disclosure

I receive a small contribution when you click on some of the links to vendors in my articles. This does NOT increase the price you pay but helps me to keep the lights on and this informational blog free for everyone. Please click on the links in the articles or to the vendors below if you are purchasing products or DNA testing.

Thank you so much.

DNA Purchases and Free Transfers

Genealogy Services

Genealogy Research

Lifetime Achievement Awards for Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld

At the 2016 Family Tree DNA 12th Annual International Conference on Genetic Genealogy held in Houston, Texas in November, I was honored to present Lifetime Achievement Awards to both Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld from the genetic genealogy community in the form of DNA double helix quilts.

I chose quilts as awards because quilts embody the deep cross-cultural symbolism of family, of caring and of warmth. Quilts can be utilitarian, artistic, or both – hung on the wall or napped under. They descend to the next generation, just like our DNA. These unique quilts, and yes, there are two, show the easily recognizable double helix strands, but also suggest the mystery of the unknown and yet to be discovered.  Quilts seemed the perfect medium.

award-dna-quilt

I must admit, I agonized for weeks about what I was going to say, and months about the DNA quilts themselves. Ok, I had a bit of analysis paralysis having to do with the quilt design and construction, but with the deadline of the approaching conference looming months, then weeks away, I kicked into overdrive to finish the quilts.

But then, the most difficult part – what to say to and about these amazing humans. I’ve been involved in public speaking for the past 30+ years, and I’m very comfortable – except not this time. This presentation was about a subject very close to my heart – and about the men who have provided all genetic genealogists with the opportunities we have today.

Before I share what I said, I would like to thank my co-conspirators:

  • Janine Cloud
  • Katherine Borges
  • Nora Probasco
  • Linda Magellan
  • Jim Brewster

Katherine, Nora and Linda have all been to all 12 of the conferences and are fellow quilters. Linda is making labels for their quilts to affix to the back so they will never forget – although I doubt there is much possibility of that happening. Jim Brewster will sew the labels to the backs of the quilts when Linda mails the labels to Texas.

Max and Bennett are very humble men and I know they were embarrassed and amazingly enough, for those of us who are fortunate enough to know then – they were also pretty much speechless. At least for a couple minutes!

I’d like to take this opportunity to share the awards presentation with you. I’ve taken the liberty of added a few photos.

Many people don’t know Max and Bennett personally, nor do they know the history of genetic genealogy and direct to consumer DNA testing. I hope this presentation both honors Max and Bennett, and serves to educate about the humble beginnings of genetic genealogy.

I’m honored to present two Lifetime Achievement Awards today. Yes, there has been a conspiracy afoot. You have no idea how difficult it is to sneak onto a conference agenda. Thank you Janine Cloud. Additional co-conspirators are Katherine Borges, Nora Probasco and Linda Magellan, three people who have attended every conference since the beginning.

award-beginning

Left to right, Roberta Estes, Linda Magellan, Katherine Borges, Nora Probasco

Let’s talk about the beginning.

Most everyone knows the story about Bennett Greenspan’s first retirement in 1999.

Bennett tried to retire, but managed to get underfoot at home, and his wife in essence threw him out of the house. She told him she didn’t much care WHAT he did, but he had to find SOMETHING to do, SOMEPLACE ELSE.

Now, knowing that Bennett is a genealogist, I’m betting that living in Houston, he went to the Clayton Library every day and assured his wife he was busy looking for a new career. He found it alright, or maybe it found him.

Someplace, at the Clayton Library or elsewhere, Bennett was thinking about how to prove that men with a common surname were or were not descended from a common ancestral line. Were they related? Bennett knew just enough about science to know that if he could find a way to test their Y chromosomes, and they descended from a common paternal ancestor, their Y DNA should match. Sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!

Bennett began a search to find a scientist that could and would run that one Y DNA test for him. As it turns out, could and would were two entirely different matters. Bennett found Dr. Michael Hammer at the University of Arizona who runs the Hammer Lab that specializes in human evolutionary genetics.

Dr. Hammer could, but would he?

Bennett mentions talking to Dr. Hammer on the phone several times. Dr. Hammer mentions that Bennett camped out in his office and wouldn’t leave. However persistent Bennett was or wasn’t, in person or otherwise, we should all be incredibly grateful for his tenacity, because purely in self-defense, Dr. Hammer agreed to do the test – just that one test.

However, Dr. Hammer made a fateful throwaway comment as Bennett was on the way out the door. He said, “Someone should start a business doing this. You crazy genealogists ask me about this ALL THE TIME.

Talk about what never to say to a bored entrepreneur. That “all the time” statement echoed and rolled around in Bennett’s head. “All the time…all the time.”

Now, I don’t know exactly what happened next, but Bennett and Max were already business partners in another endeavor, and I’d bet the next conversation went something like this:

“Max – I’ve got an idea….”

Followed by a brief discussion and then:

“Bennett, are you crazy? No one will ever buy that?”

Like I said, I wasn’t there – but I’m really glad Bennett was a bit crazy – because so are the rest of us genealogists – as is proven by the size and magnitude of the genetic genealogy industry today.

The fledgling business, Family Tree DNA, was founded with Dr. Hammer’s lab doing the testing.

Fast forward a few months to July 14, 2000.

Cousin Doug Mumma, who, by the way, I didn’t know was a cousin until several years later thanks to a Family Finder test, called Family Tree DNA and talked to Bennett about Y DNA testing several Mumma men and men with similar surnames to see if they descended from a common ancestor. If Bennett was crazy wanting Y DNA testing, he is accompanied by a whole lot of other genealogists. Perhaps it’s genetic.

Bennett agreed to form a project for Doug and Doug agreed to commit to purchase 20 kits. Doug’s first kit in the Mumma Surname Project was kit M-01 and by the time he was ready to purchase project kit number 21, the M was gone from the kit designation, and he purchased kit number 72.

Fast forward another few months.

I had tested my mitochondrial DNA with Oxford Ancestors and for something like $900 discovered that I was the daughter of Jasmine, one of the seven daughters of Eve. I received a one page diagram with a gold star placed on the letter J. My fascination with the science of genetic genealogy had begun.

One of my cousins mentioned that some company in Texas was doing DNA testing on men for the Y chromosome for genealogy. I was just sure this was some kind of scam, because I figured if that could be done, Oxford Ancestors would be offering that too – and they weren’t.

I found the phone number for Family Tree DNA, called and left a message.

Later that night, about 9:30, my phone rang and it was Bennett Greenspan returning my call – the President of Family Tree DNA.

Little did I know, at that time, that the office consisted of Bennett’s cell phone.

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We talked for an hour. I explained to Bennett that I had tested for mitochondrial DNA and asked about the Y DNA testing. Bennett described what Family Tree DNA was doing with testing and projects, convincing me it was not a scam after all. While I certainly understood the genetic basis of how Y DNA testing worked, I had not seen the website, or the software, and I was concerned about explaining how matching worked on the site between different men in a project.

Bennett said something fateful, which I’m sure he’s regretting right about now. He said, “Don’t worry – I’ll help you.”

With that, I committed to purchase 5 kits and he committed to create the Estes surname project, and help me if I needed assistance. I quickly found 5 willing Estes genealogists who desperately wanted to know if they descended from a common Estes progenitor. The Estes DNA project was formed.

In mid-December 2002, I purchased kit 6656.  Kits were selling at the incredible rate of about 2000 a year!

The DNA results were amazing and full of potential for every ancestral line. I quickly became an advocate of genetic genealogy, although Rootsweb wouldn’t let us discuss DNA testing on the boards and lists, like it was some sort of pariah. DNA proved and disproved genealogy, myths and oral history – which bothered some folks immensely.

By 2004, genetic genealogy was growing and so was the interest in this field. Around the beginning of 2004, kit 17,000 was sold and twelve months later, on New Year’s Eve, kit 30,244 was sold. Participation in genetic genealogy nearly doubled in 2004 and in two years, it had quadrupled.  By now, kits were selling at just under 2000 per month.

November 2004 saw the first conference sponsored by Family Tree DNA in Houston which lasted only one day. The excitement in the community was palpable. Not only were we excited about the conference itself, and learning, but by meeting each other face to face.

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Bennett Greenspan, Bruce Walsh (obscured by Bennett), Max Blankfeld and Matt Kaplan from the University of Arizona, at the first conference. Photos from 2004 courtesy ISOGG.

In April of 2005, Family Tree DNA made the announcement that they had teamed with the National Geographic Society and the Genographic Project was launched. This liaison was the turning point that legitimized DNA testing to the rest of the world. People began to see DNA testing featured in the iconic magazine with the yellow cover and no one wondered anymore if we were just plain crazy.

In November 2005, the second Family Tree DNA Genetic Genealogy conference, which became the second annual conference, was held in Washington DC at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society.

This conference was extra exciting because of the location and the implications for genetic genealogy. We had come of age. The conference was held in the “Explorers Hall.” We were recognized as explorers too in this brave new genetic world.

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My husband and I stayed at a hotel called The Helix in Washington, within walking distance to the National Geographic building. On the morning of the conference, we left the hotel for the 5-minute walk to Nat Geo. In front of us, maybe 30 feet, were Max and Bennett, briskly walking and chatting. We continued behind them, not wanting to interrupt. In those few minutes, I remember distinctly thinking that I was literally watching history being made by the two men in front of me. Little did I know exactly how true that was and what the future held.

On New Year’s Eve, 2005, I purchased kit 50,000. Of course, I had to purchase about 10 kits to manage to get kit 50,000, right at midnight. Unbeknownst to me, the Genographic Project had sold nearly 100,000 kits. Genetic genealogy had passed silently from its infancy.

Every year since then, more history has unfolded.

Few people get the opportunity to shape the future.

Few people get the opportunity to directly affect more than a few lives – in this case, millions.

Few people get the opportunity to found not just a business, but an industry that will continue to provide information and answers long after we are nothing more than genealogical memories.

Few people get to chart the course of history.

Yes, I’m talking about Max and Bennett.

No, they don’t know anything about this.

About this time, Bennett apparently suspected not only that the awards might be for he and Max, but also realized that he had been “had.” Janine Cloud, was the person with the difficult task of making sure that Bennett and Max were in the room during this time, in addition to providing a disguised space on the agenda for these awards.

This is the look on Bennett’s face when he realized and looked at Janine.

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Followed by this photo.  Janine is standing behind Bennett.

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Max, however, didn’t suspect, because he was busy. I can just hear Bennett, “Pssst, Max…..”

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So, until now, Max probably really doesn’t know exactly what I said up to this point.

Max and Bennett not only founded the genetic genealogy industry, they have maintained a leadership position within that industry while others perished. They have an entire series of firsts attributed to them, but if I took time to list them all, we would be here all day.

What I will say is that they have created this industry with the utmost integrity and with their eye to the consumer. One example stands out.

I was standing at a conference some years ago when a man asked Bennett about backbone SNP testing. Bennett asked him which haplogroup. The man answered, then Bennett told him not to spend his money on that test for that haplogroup, because he wasn’t likely to learn anything he didn’t already know.

Being a project administrator, I was surprised at Bennett’s response. I spoke with Bennett and he said he never wanted his customers to feel like they didn’t receive value for their money. That’s not something one would expect to hear from the mouth of a businessman. But that is Bennett.

Integrity has been the guiding principle and the foundation of Family Tree DNA and remains so today.

Max and Bennett have given us what is arguably the single most valuable tool for genealogists – ever – not to mention those searching for their birth family.

Francis Crick and James Watson discovered DNA in 1953, but it would be another 47 years before Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld gave us the rosetta stone so that “the rest of us” can understand our DNA and how it’s relevant to our own lives – and those of our ancestors. That vision in 1999 and the fledgling startup company in 2000 was the cornerstone of the DTC, direct to consumer, DNA industry today.

I am honored to present Max and Bennett with special Lifetime Achievement Awards – that are – well – a bit different from any other lifetime achievement award. But then, they are unique so their awards should be as well.

I am asking Katherine Borges, Linda Magellan and Nora Probasco to help present these awards on behalf of the genetic genealogy community. All 3 have attended all of the conferences.

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Katherine Borges closed the presentation with the following quote by Wilferd Peterson.

Walk with the Dreamers,
The Believers,
The Courageous,
The Planners,
The Doers,
The Successful people with their heads in the clouds and their feet on the ground,
Let their Spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than when you found it.

We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Thank you Max and Bennett for inviting and allowing us to walk with you on this most fabulous journey. You are the wind beneath our wings.

What you can’t see in the photos is the standing ovation for Max and Bennett. People came up to me afterwards and thanked me, saying that they wanted to say those things, but couldn’t or didn’t know how.

At this point, we told Max and Bennett that they had to close their eyes. They are indeed trusting souls.

When they opened their eyes, I’m sure they didn’t know quite what to think. They were both looking to their left at first, and I think they thought there was one quilt.

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I do love the looks on their faces. We wanted them to be surprised and joyful, and they clearly were.

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They weren’t entirely speechless, but close.

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Max said something short and gracious, then handed the microphone to Bennett and said , “Here Bennett, you say something.” The crowd laughed. Max and Bennett both handled the situation with the grace and dignity we have come to expect.

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For those who would like to see a closeup, Katherine Borges took a nice picture.

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I will be writing a separate article about the quilts themselves.

Family Tree DNA offers lab tours on the Monday following the conference, and I was able to take a photo of Max and Bennett in the office with the quilts.  For those who don’t know, Gene by Gene is the parent company of Family Tree DNA.

I’m sure none of us, including Max and Bennett had any idea 16 years ago where this road would lead.  It has been an amazing journey – a fantastic magic carpet ride!

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I want to thank everyone who contributed in any way to these awards for Bennett and Max, including everyone who has bought tests and participated in DNA testing for genetic genealogy.  Every time I thank Max, he always says, “No, thank YOU.  We wouldn’t be here without you,” meaning the testing community.  That’s Max, and I know he means it sincerely.

Not only was this a wonderful opportunity to honor the men who founded and anchor this industry and community, but also to celebrate individuals being able to participate in discovery on the forefront of the final frontier, the one within us.  What Max and Bennett have provided is an opportunity beyond measure. I could never have dreamed a dream this big. I’m eternally grateful that they did.

Thank you, Max and Bennett, for everything you have done for genetic genealogy over the past 16 years, for founding Family Tree DNA, for projects and a wide variety of products, for embracing, including and encouraging genealogists, scientists and citizen scientists, and for providing continuing opportunities to unwrap the genetic gifts left to us by our ancestors.

I have struggled to find words big enough, strong enough and deep enough.  I hope when you look at your quilts, you will simply feel our everlasting gratitude for how profoundly you have touched and irreversibly changed the lives of so many, one by one, in essence sewing many small stitches in the quilt of humanity.

Photos courtesy Jennifer Zinck, Jim Hollern, Katherine Borges, Janine Cloud, Jim Kvochick and ISOGG.

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