Ten Takeaways from a DNA Practicum
Are you actively working to incorporate DNA into your documentary genealogy research? Interested in how other people would solve the same DNA challenge? You might be interested in participating in a DNA practicum. I recently completed the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG) All-DNA Practicum sponsored by the Utah Genealogical Association. Each week throughout October we met online and discussed the cases after doing our best to solve them. Four different instructors gave us a variety of challenging DNA problems and we had to complete the research and report summary by the next class. What did I learn? Here are my top ten takeaways.
#1 Find the Balance Between DNA and Documentary Research
What do you spend time on when you only have six days to solve a DNA case? Mostly DNA? Mostly documentary research? I was fascinated to learn the different approaches my classmates took with the same background information. Some worked almost exclusively with the DNA, others worked more with the documentary research. I found that each case needed a unique approach. What held true was that too much time on either could have led you down that proverbial rabbit hole, researching unnecessary records or spending too much time building trees. We only have so much time in the day, so finding a good balance in our research approach is key.
#2 Take a Break Every So Often
We can get into trouble if we work nonstop on a case for hours at a time. Taking a break after a couple of hours allows us to step back and evaluate what we have done. Are we headed in the right direction or did we veer from our research plan. A good practice is to research for an hour, then write up what we have learned. This could involve making a table or chart or writing a few sentences about a record. We make our best connections in writing and especially with complicated DNA problems, writing can help us to see the big picture. After writing, we can make a plan for the next segment of research.
#3 Look for Broad Clues in the DNA
When we first start with a research problem involving DNA, we can do an overview of the DNA evidence, then search for proof in the documents. For instance, you might be trying to identify the Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) of a cluster of DNA matches. Do you notice any clues in the trees – common localities, common surnames, common admixture/ethnicity? Looking for broad clues in the DNA can jump start your research in the records if you take the time for good analysis.
#4 Explore the Low-hanging Fruit First
Where do we start when working with DNA? In documentary research, we often start with a census study to set a foundation for the family before searching court records. When working with DNA matches we can also start with the low-hanging fruit and explore the DNA matches that share the most DNA with our research subject and also have a family tree that we can view. If we have just one or two of these great matches in a cluster, it can help us not waste time and effort.
#5 Mind the Gap
We must always remember that there could be another common ancestor than the one suggested by Ancestry Thrulines, My Heritage’s Theory of Relativity, or our own analysis. If we have any gaps in our pedigree chart, we have no idea who our ancestors are in that position. Our DNA matches likely have gaps as well in their pedigrees. Keeping the gaps in mind can keep us from incorrect analysis of DNA matching.
#6 Analyze the Sources and Evidence Carefully
When we work with documentary sources we are careful to analyze every detail and consider alternate hypotheses. If we see a woman in the 1850 census in a household, we don’t automatically assume she is the mother of all of the children listed. We know she could be a second or third wife of the head of household. With DNA, we can’t assume that a high match is a second cousin, they could be a half cousin once removed or another relationship. We need to carefully piece the puzzle together constantly evaluating each piece. If the DNA and documentary evidence is not fitting – something is wrong. We’ve made an incorrect assumption along the way and need to retrace our steps.
#7 Set the Foundation
Using the results of more than one test taker can boost the DNA evidence when solving a difficult case but we should first examine their path back to the ancestor to build a solid foundation for the project. If we discover that one of the generation relationships is not correct, that could have huge consequences for our analysis. We need to also look for gaps in their pedigrees and consider that there could be multiple common ancestral paths because of pedigree collapse.
#8 Break a Large Project into Phases
We may be staring at a huge conundrum like discovering the parents of an adoptee in the mid 1800s. Will this be solved in 20 hours of research? Not likely. The project might seem so large that you don’t know where to begin. A proven strategy is to break that large project down into phases. For instance, the first phase could be to thoroughly research the adoptee and their FAN club. You could make a timeline and keep a list of all the friends, family, neighbors, and associates of the adoptee. Next phases could be to verify the testers pedigrees and note any gaps. Then DNA matches could be clustered and analyzed. Hypothesized ancestors could be researched and the hypothesis proven or disproven. Having a planned approach makes a difference!
#9 Pay Attention to the Probabilities
The Shared cM Project 4.0 tool v4 by Blaine T. Bettinger is essential in analyzing DNA matches and the probability of their hypothesized place in the family tree. The latest version of the tool includes the histogram showing the number of DNA matches reported for a specific relationship. If our suppositions fall too far outside the center, we need to revisit our analysis. Could there be half relationships we have not accounted for? Is something else going on in the family? False assumptions lead to false conclusions.
#10 Follow a Process
If you don’t follow a process as you work, you won’t have anything to show for the hours and hours spent building trees, analyzing amounts of cM, clustering matches, and more. We cannot hold in our brains all the data needed for a successful DNA research project. Selecting an objective, creating a timeline of the documentary evidence, learning about the locality and examining ethnicity, making a research plan, tracking the research in a log, and writing conclusions will get us ever closer to our goal.
I followed the Research Like a Pro with DNA process for each of the four case studies and loved the focus the process gave me. I used an Airtable research log, and the Research Project Document template as I worked, then I was able to write a report summary for each case in the allotted time using the information I had collected. For a look at each part of the process check out these articles.
Step 1 Take a DNA Test: Which DNA Test Should I Take? and DNA-Recommended Testing Strategy
Step 2 Assess: Understanding and Using Your DNA Results – 4 Simple Steps
Step 3 Organize: Seeing the Big Picture: 3 Ways to Chart Your DNA Matches
Step 4 Research Objective: What Do You Want to Know? 3 Steps to Focus Your DNA Research
Step 5 Analyze your Sources: DNA Sources, Information, and Evidence: Sorting it All Out
Step 6 Locality Research: Where in the World Has My DNA Traveled? DNA and Locality Research
Step 7 Research Planning: Genealogy Research Planning with DNA
Methodology and Tools to use as you plan your research:
– Charts for Understanding DNA Inheritance
– Clustering or Creating Genetic Networks
– Pedigree Triangulation
– Chromosome Browsers
– Segment Triangulation
– Chromosome Mapping
– DNA Gedcom
Step 8 Source Citations: DNA Source Citations
Step 9 Research Logs: DNA Research Logs: how to keep Track of Genetic Genealogy Searches
Step 10 Report Writing: DNA Research Reports – the Ultimate Finish
Step 11 What’s Next? Continue Your Research & Writing, Productivity, and Education
I thoroughly enjoyed the DNA practicum. It stretched my skills and gave me new ideas for best research practices. If you are ready to start working with DNA in your research, I highly recommend starting with something simple like verifying a family line. Work through the RLP with DNA process and see what you can discover.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!