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Trace Your Roots with DNA



by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Ann Turner

The Joys of Joining

Back in the dark ages of genetic DNA testing-way back in 2001 or 2002 -- the answer would have been to launch your own study. And depending on your circumstances, that might still be appropriate. But for more and more of us, simply joining an existing project is becoming a viable option.

As we mentioned in the opening chapter, genetealogy has reached the tipping point, the phrase Malcolm Gladwell coined for when a concept "crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire." And that's good news-especially for newcomers. With the proliferation of surname projects over the past few years, there's a reasonable chance that you'll be able to find one or more projects already in full swing that conveniently focus on names that appear on some branch or other of your family tree. In such cases, rather than start from scratch, you can simply jump into the Johnson, Kincaid, or [Insert your own name here!] project.

Finding a Surname Project

There are well over a thousand surname projects under way. And if you sport an especially common name, such as the U.S. 's current top five-Smith, Johnson, Williams, Jones, and Brown-you may well have several projects from which to choose. In fact, new projects have begun to sprout so quickly that one of us has been able to join projects for two branches of her family tree-Shields and Reynolds-in just the past month. And don't think that just because you have an unusual name, there's no hope. Surnames already under study include Blueglass, Janita, Mockensturm, Quiden, Tuxhom, and Zuraff.

So how do you find out if there's a project for you to jump into? You have several options, most of which involve the Internet, so if you don't have a computer at home, you'll probably want to visit the local library. If you happen to be an avid genealogist, chances are that you will soon stumble across mentions of projects involving names of interest in the magazines and newsletters you read. Each issue of the National Genealogical Society's NewsMagazine , for instance, includes announcements of assorted projects seeking participants. If your name is Hill, Shugart, Sisson, Taliaferro, or Stiddem, you could have recently tripped across a project this way. Publications of societies and family associations-and increasingly, even "regular" periodicals ranging from Newsweek magazine and The Wall Street Journa l to your local paper-contain more and more articles about the launch or progress of DNA studies. Wells, Howery, Glennon, Johnson, Rice, Clough, and Surdival are just a few of the names you could have discovered by flipping the pages of a magazine or newspaper. If you haven't already seen such announcements or articles, you can expect to find them in your mailbox in the not-too-distant future.

Even if you subscribe to several family history publications, you'll want to go surfing on the Internet as well. Many surname projects have their own Web sites, so a "surname DNA" query (replace "surname" with the name of interest) at your favorite search engine will frequently pop up exactly what you're looking for in the top listing or two. For example, if you search on "Blair DNA at , you'll be presented with several links to a Web site with all the details you need. Even if you don't find immediate links to such a site, you'll usually discover a few messages about the project. Click on these, and then simply e-mail the person who made the posting or the project manager, who will often be identified within the message.

You might also want to peruse the project listings such as those provided at . Public access databases that are searchable by surname and provide contact information for submitters ( and ) offer another alternative. If you still find no obvious links to an existing project, you'll want to go to the Web sites of the testing companies, and use their search functionality. For instance, , , and all have a search-by-surname option on their home pages. By entering a name here, you will learn how many individuals of that name have already been tested by that company. This is especially helpful for finding small, private studies or recently initiated projects that may not have been publicized or don't have their own Web sites yet. Be sure to try variations of your name (e.g., Strickland, Stricklin, Strickling) or entering just the first few letters to get a more complete list of names that may be close to your own. Because the spelling of our names has often been slightly tweaked over the centuries, it may be worth joining a project based on a name similar to your own, even if it's a letter or two off from what you consider to be the "correct" spelling. Just because you and some fellow in New Zealand spell your name a little differently doesn't mean you didn't have the same great-great-great-great-great-grandfather!

Joining a Project

Let's say you've poked around a bit and found a project you'd like to join. If it's a well-established one with a Web site, all the information you'll need will usually be on the site. You'll be able to learn about the scope of the project-all Taylors or just the ones from certain states? -- have a look at results to date and how they're shared, see if the administrator has any special requirements, and of course, join the study. (Incidentally, this might be a good time to mention that project administrators use a variety of terms for themselves, so we use the words administrator, coordinator, and manager interchangeably.)

Almost all such Web sites will include a link for ordering your kit directly from the testing company. This is especially convenient because much of the coordination has already been handled for you. By using the link provided, you're automatically included in that particular study, and the administrator will be notified of your participation, even if you don't contact him directly. Another possible advantage of joining an existing group is a price break! Some companies offer those testing through a project prices that are about 25 to 40 percent less than those testing on their own.

If you've decided to participate, it's simply a matter of following the link and typing in your name, contact, and payment information. Most companies accept online credit card payment, and some will give you the option of being invoiced, so you can wait until returning the kit to part with your money.

Special Requirements

Back in the early days of genetic genealogy, taking and paying for a test was usually all that was required to join a project, and in many cases, that's still true. Every additional test moves a study forward so project managers are usually more than happy to welcome new participants. But as with any practice that becomes more established and verges on entering the mainstream, the world of genetealogy has developed some formalities. Some administrators now have additional requirements for joining. And while you might grumble at the extra paperwork and think it smacks of bureaucracy, it's actually beneficial, even if it takes a little more time.

The two most typical extra requirements make a lot of sense. One is information about your earliest known ancestor and how you (or the person being tested, if it's not you) connect to this person generation by generation. This is frequently provided in the form of a pedigree or descendancy chart, although many project coordinators will take it in any form it's offered. Requesting this information allows the administrator to make sure that would-be participants understand all the necessary nuances-a woman expecting to represent her line in a surname project would quickly be advised to find an appropriate male relative to take the test instead.

It also provides more value to everyone in the study. Think about it. If your test matches someone else's, what's the first thing you'll want to do? More than likely, you'll want to find out as much about this other person and his ancestors as possible. At a minimum, you'll have found a new cluster of cousins, and in an ideal situation, you'll be fortunate enough to match someone who has their family tree traced back a century or two further than you have, so you can benefit from his research!

Most administrators who gather such information from their project's participants also post it on their Web sites. This means that you won't have to wait for your newly discovered cousin to return from his vacation to exchange e-mails and explore possible connections. It will already be available for viewing on the Internet, which leads us to the second frequent requirement-the consent form.

When you take a test, you'll have the option of signing a brief consent form for the testing company. Not signing it almost defeats the purpose of testing, as this release allows the company to notify you of any matches in their database. It's innocuous, and without it, you'll severely restrict the potential to gain insight into your roots, so it's best to simply sign this one. The secondary consent form requested by some administrators is intended to give them permission to post some of your family data on the Internet, but don't let this alarm you. If you read it closely (and most consents are a page or less), you'll discover that the administrators usually restrict themselves in terms of what they're allowed to share, meaning that your data will only appear disguised under a code of some sort or perhaps the name of your earliest known ancestor. In this way, your privacy is protected.

Additional clauses are generally designed to avoid misunderstandings and may cover such issues as these:

•  participants being appropriate for the study (e.g., having the right surname or line of descent)

•  acknowledgment that there may or may not be any matches, especially in the project's early stages (to avoid possible disappointment when the results are returned)

•  who pays

•  timely response (so the coordinator doesn't have to chase down stray kits).

Many now also include an indemnification clause to protect the project manager from any claims of harm. To date, we know of no such claims ever having been made, but in our litigious society, it's not unreasonable for administrators to take this measure.


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Excerpted from Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Ann Turner. Copyright © 2004 Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak and Ann Turner. All rights reserved. Excerpted by arrangement with Rodale, Inc., Emmaus , PA 18098 . $14.95. Available in local bookstores or call 800.848.4735 or click here.

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