08 November 2011

Hat Tip to Citizen Scientists / Genetic Genealogists

When I teach DNA classes for genealogists I recommend they test as much as they can afford as soon as they can. My reasons for this advice are:
  • You never know when you will lose a person whose DNA holds the solution to your current genealogical problem or a genealogical problem you will encounter on a line you haven't worked yet. My mother-in-law died this year. I kick myself every time I realize I missed getting her tested. It's not like I should have been surprised. She was ninety-one years old. Even healthy people her age may not have long left on this earth.
  • Genetic genealogy is one of those areas, like backyard astronomy, where non-scientists are making contributions to the scientific knowledge. The amount of a research grant may limit an academic to testing fewer DNA markers and fewer people than we do in a genetic genealogy project. Genetic genealogists are only restricted by our own pocketbooks or how good we are at begging finding an interested benefactor who is interested in the same lineage. We can pool our resources in ways academics can't.
  • Genetic genealogy is just COOL. How often do you get to participate in cutting-edge science?

At the Family Tree DNA conference, held this past weekend in Houston, Texas, two renowned scientists referred to genetic genealogists as "citizen scientists." I like that term. I'm going to add it to my presentation slides.

Dr. Spencer Wells is an Explorer-in-Residence for the National Geographic Project and Director of the Genographic Project found online at https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/index.html. He is also the author of The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey (Random House, 2002), Deep Ancestry: Inside the Genographic Project: The Landmark DNA Quest to Decipher Our Distant Past (National Geographic, 2006), and his latest book, Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization (Random House, 2010). Dr. Wells acknowledged that citizen science has been critical to his field of study. The public participation segment of the Genographic Project has provided the scientists with lots of data. That data allows the scientists to identify differences that show up at a low but detectable level when many DNA samples are compared. Genetic genealogists have also been able to identify and answer questions that scientists may not have thought of yet.

Dr. Michael F. Hammer is an Associate Professor and Research Scientist at The Hammer Lab at the University of Arizona found online at http://hammerlab.biosci.arizona.edu/. He is also the Chief Scientist for Family Tree DNA and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board. During his presentation to the assembled Project Administrators at the Family Tree DNA conference, Dr. Hammer told us that he and the other scientists had been able to easily answer questions from the group during the first few conferences, but ... The implication being the knowledge level of genetic genealogists is growing and our questions are becoming more difficult to answer easily.

Bennett Greenspan and Max Blankfeld, the founders and owners of Family Tree DNA (FTDNA), told us we are pushing academia. Although genetic genealogists include some with a biology or genetics background, most of us wouldn't know nearly as much as we do about DNA without the help we have received from FTDNA. This was the 7th Annual Family Tree DNA Conference for Project Administrators where the company brought scientists and project administrators from all over the world together. The FTDNA website has a wealth of resources available via links and FAQs. Max and Bennett project a genuine friendship and appreciation for their customers. The staff at FTDNA goes above and beyond what any other testing company offers.

Those contributions by citizen scientists are likely due to having a different perspective than the academics do. In many cases we have more data to work with—more markers tested per person and more people tested in a project or a family. Many genetic genealogists compulsively study areas that have significance to our personal ancestral quest, but may not have reached a level of major importance for the academics. We have documentary evidence for relationships the academics lack. We can see instances where the data doesn't exactly fit the statistical model.

A hat tip to all of the citizen scientist genetic genealogists and those who support us seems to be in order. Congratulations to us! I hope we keep pushing academia as more genealogists test and as we learn more about using the data we collect to further our ancestral history goals.

© 2011, Debbie Parker Wayne, All Rights Reserved

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