Genetic Genealogist Answers 9 Common Questions About DNA Testing

Interested in DNA testing? Genetic genealogist Diahan Southard answers the most frequently asked and most timely questions regarding this popular trend.

On any given day, Diahan Southard does the same things many other Latter-day Saint moms do. She helps her kids with homework. She serves in her church calling and tries to be a good neighbor. But when it comes to her work, Southard does something a little more unusual: she helps people rebuild their family trees using their DNA.

Southard is a genetic genealogist. Trained in microbiology at Brigham Young University nearly 20 years ago, she was an early employee of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which also had its origins at BYU. She helped the Foundation in its pioneering efforts to create a database that would correlate people’s genes and their genealogy.

It would be many years before this kind of DNA database became widely used and accessible on websites such as ancestry.com and myheritage.com. In the interim, Southard married, had three children—and solved a mystery on her own family tree. Her mother is adopted, and Southard helped her identify her biological mother and learn about her family’s origins in a German-speaking Russian community that settled North Dakota. Southard even helped her mother connect with her half-siblings—an experience that culminated in a large family reunion and has resulted in lasting, meaningful relationships.

But this kind of happy DNA story doesn’t happen for everyone, as Southard well knows from years of helping her clients explore their roots. Even so, many DNA tests eventually lead to meaningful discoveries and answered questions.

Speaking of questions, Southard gets a lot of them. Here she answers some of the most frequent and timely questions she hears at genealogy events around the world.

1. What might DNA testing tell me?

DNA testing for family history can do two things. First, it reveals where your family may have come from in the past few hundred years: that ethnicity pie chart. Second and much more importantly, DNA tests connect you with biological relatives. These DNA matches can help you fill in blank spots on your family tree—sometimes even blank spots a few generations back.

2. How accurate are those ethnicity results?

Ethnicity results are the most popular feature of DNA testing. However, they’re also the weakest part of the test, scientifically speaking. The good news is that ethnicity results are gradually getting more accurate and more specific. These changes sometimes cause confusion, though.

Let’s say your ethnicity results initially showed your dominant ethnicity as 37% Scandinavian. Now the very same testing company says you have predominantly British Isles origins, and your Scandinavian percentage has been reduced to 14% Norwegian and 2% Swedish. How is this possible? The places your ancestors came from have not changed!

Those pretty pie charts and percentages are based on the reference populations your testing company uses to define what “Scandinavian” means (or Italian or Nigerian or hundreds of other categories). Initially, reference populations didn’t include enough data from all over the world to be sufficiently accurate and specific. But in the more than 10 years since DNA testing appeared, many updates have been made. More populations are represented in larger numbers, and refinements have been made to the math used to calculate ethnicity percentages. So that general “Scandinavian,” which may have had some intermingling with the neighboring British Isles, is now reduced to the more specific Norwegian and Swedish categories, and the British Isles heritage can be teased apart from it.

3. Then what meaning does DNA ethnicity have?

Some people find it emotionally meaningful to discover something about their ethnic heritage, even if the accuracy is still iffy. Some people grow up knowing nothing about where their families came from. Others only know about the origins of one or two branches, say, from Germany. They don’t know they also have Basque or Jewish roots.

Occasionally, ethnicity results can help you with genealogical research. First of all, they might inspire you to go find out who that Basque or Jewish ancestor was! Sometimes they’ll help you figure out whether one of your DNA matches is on your dad’s side or your mom’s side. At AncestryDNA, you can even learn about recent migrations in your family that may affect how you are researching a particular line.

Recently, critics have complained that DNA ethnicity percentages reinforce negative ideas about race and may perpetuate racism. My experience is that DNA tests often reveal new ethnicities that cause people to rethink their old prejudices. Just remember that DNA ethnicity is less about “race” and more about their geographic origins (and occasionally cultural origins, such as Jewish). Such information is neutral: it’s history. It’s how you use that information that matters. So use it to reinforce a positive sense of family heritage and belonging, not the negative kind of “clannishness” that causes cultural divides and racist thinking.

4. What if I don’t have any mysteries on my family tree?

Statistically, you probably do have mysteries: you just don’t know about them. Many people have been raised by families who weren’t biologically related, and were never the wiser. Children born into difficult circumstances have been quietly adopted out of families—maybe even yours.

But let’s say you do have a solid family tree back several generations. In this case, you may become the answer to someone else’s mystery. Those with more complete family trees can help their DNA matches to figure out who their ancestors are. A second cousin match in my mom’s biological family did this for us. Connecting with us didn’t solve any mysteries for him, but his knowledge of his family history blessed us greatly. We used his tree to identify her relatives.

5. What if I don’t want to know about secrets on my family tree?

In my personal and professional life, I’ve encountered hundreds of DNA surprises. A few are awful. But most end up leading to positive experiences. For example, I know of a man who never married and never knew that he had fathered a daughter. She found him through DNA testing. Now he knows his daughter and three grandchildren, and he has gratefully transitioned into the role of father and grandfather, even though it has been difficult at times.

However, if you’re not ready to learn something unexpected, don’t test. Probably no one is exempt from some sort of mystery in their family. People continue to test at unprecedented rates so discoveries may happen any time after you get your results.

6. What if my DNA results have surprises in them?

First, make sure you understand your results correctly. I’ve talked with a lot of people who thought they found something unusual in their results and they were wrong. There are a lot of helpful people and information online to help you sort your DNA results, but like other information on the internet, it isn’t always accurate.

Next, come to terms with anything that affects you personally. For example, if you find a new half-sibling or learn that your parents or grandparents aren’t related to you biologically, you may feel grief, anger, betrayal, or even rootless. It may take time and a lot of prayer to work through your feelings. Consider seeking professional counseling or sharing with others who have had similar experiences via platforms like the DNA Surprise Support Group on Facebook.

When it comes to telling your relatives what you’ve learned, again, be prayerful. Ultimately, you want both truth and happy family relationships. Consider who rightfully “owns” this information and share it only with them. Then let them be part of the decision on how to move forward.

Let’s say you discover through a DNA match that your aunt gave up a child for adoption or that your brother fathered a child he may not even know about. Talk to your aunt or brother (or if deceased, talk to that person’s next of kin). Tell them what you’ve learned and how. Don’t judge. Do be patient and loving. Give them time to process your disclosure. Invite them to confirm the relationship and connect directly with that child via email or on the phone, or even in person. You may need to point out (gently) that because of DNA testing, the situation may eventually become known anyway, and that it may be best to take control of that knowledge and relationship now.

7. How should I talk to my DNA matches (including those unexpected ones)?

Reaching out to a new DNA match can be intimidating. That’s especially true for unexpected relationships or family secrets. So think of this contact like a first date. The goal of a first date isn’t marriage: it’s a second date. Start a conversation and be honest, but don’t tell your whole life story. Perhaps say something like, “It looks like you’re a close DNA match to me. Do you have any ancestors in Ohio?” (Or who are German, or whatever you already know about your biological relatives.) Wait to broach more sensitive topics until you’ve established a dialogue.

Ideally, you want to give your DNA match enough information that they get curious. Once they’re curious, they’ll often become more interested in finding an answer and will be less shocked or surprised. They’ll go into information-gathering or detective mode instead of defensive mode. Help them be curious and come to the conclusion on their own about your shared heritage. They’ll be more likely to be accepting.

It also helps to add a picture to your DNA profile. This literally puts a face to your inquiry.

8. What else should I consider when it comes to DNA testing?

Each company has its own terms and conditions. Read them carefully before you test. Watch for issues you may care about. What may the company do with your personal and health information? Are law enforcement agencies able to match samples from crime scenes to your DNA (and by extension, your relatives’ DNA)? Read informed consent policies about including your DNA in research projects. If you’re super concerned about privacy, you shouldn’t test. Just like every other area of our lives, there’s no guarantee that your data won’t be breached.

If you’re not ready to connect with genetic relatives but you’d like to start your DNA journey, go ahead and take a test. All major companies allow you to opt-out of matching, meaning that you won’t see any DNA matches and they won’t see you. You can always turn this tool on when you’re ready.

9. What do you think your Latter-day Saint perspective brings to the world of DNA testing?

To me this is another manifestation of the Lord doing his work in the latter days. We cannot be exalted without a family. We all have to be linked to each other. The Lord is committed to helping us find every single person who has ever lived and giving them back their family trees. So many family relationships are being revealed and confirmed through DNA testing that just could not have been found any other way.

Though we are eternal beings, we are also biologically connected to one another. DNA links us to each other. I feel that these biological relationships matter—even when we form other family relationships—or they wouldn’t be so deeply and uniquely encoded in each of us.

Finally, if you discover that your family tree goes a different direction than you thought, it’s not as if you have to chop off other beloved branches. Family trees can have multiple lines of ancestors. In the FamilySearch Family Tree, you can designate several different kinds of parent relationships: adopted, biological, foster, guardian and step. This is all about adding more relatives, not subtracting. Just scoot over and add another chair at your family table.


10 Keys to Unlocking Your DNA Matches

1. Add the most complete family tree file you have to your DNA results on your testing site. Be sure the tree reflects your biological ancestry.

2. If your match has a tree on the site, compare your trees to see if you can determine where they overlap. (You may need to do a little more research to see where you connect.)

3. Use tools such as Ancestry’s ThruLines and MyHeritage’s Theory of Family Relativity to help identify common ancestors. (You’ll want to verify their suggestions yourself.)

4. Look at your total amount of shared DNA, reported in centimorgans (cM). It suggests the genetic relationship between you and your match. For a more in depth look, consider consulting the chart at the Shared cM Project (thegeneticgenealogist.com).

5. Look at the largest single segment of shared DNA, reported by some companies. Larger segments indicate a closer genetic relationship.

6. Look at other DNA matches you both share. (The tool might be called Shared Matches or In Common With.) If you know another match is on your maternal grandmother’s side, and you have that match in common, you’re related on that side of the family.

7. Keep an open mind when it comes to relationship predications provided by the testing company. Genetically, a second cousin looks very much like a first cousin once removed, or even a great aunt or uncle.

8. Communicate with your DNA matches (see article for how-to ideas).

9. Consult guides such as The Family Tree Guide to DNA Testing and Genetic Genealogy by Blaine T. Bettinger and Diahan Southard’s series of quick reference guides for different testing companies and test types (yourdnaguide.com).

10. Wait for other relatives to test. Their genetic relationships and trees may help you identify your connection to other matches.

Family photos capture some of the most meaningful moments in life — wedding, babies, graduations, military service, and holidays. Your old family photos are full of important family history clues. Family Photo Detective helps you identify and research these clues that can further your genealogy research. Photo identification expert and genealogist Maureen A. Taylor, author of the Family Tree Magazine’s Photo Detective blog and magazine column, shows you how to put names to faces and recapture the lost stories of your old family photos.

Family matters. Climb up into your family tree and start exploring its limbs and branches!

This friendly organizer will enable you to record the story of your family. Fill-in pages for details about family genealogy, children, relatives, pets, family gatherings, favorites, traits, your world, and much more! Leaf through this book, select a section, and begin! In the end you'll have a keepsake you'll want to preserve for yourself and for future generations to come. 104 pages. Acid-free/archival paper. Concealed wire-o hardcover binding. Measures 8-1/2 inches wide by 11 inches high.

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