If you’ve ever even thought about testing your own DNA for genealogical purposes, then you are almost guaranteed to have heard of Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak. Megan is the Chief Family Historian and North American spokesperson for Ancestry.com, as well as the co-founder of Roots Television, an online channel of genealogy and history-oriented programming. Additionally, Megan is the co-author of “Trace Your Roots With DNA”, the premiere book on genetic genealogy (the other co-author, Ann Turner, will be featured later in this series).
Megan blogs about genetic genealogy and other genealogical topics at Megan’s Roots World (which I highly recommend adding to your feed reader or daily reading list). In the following interview, Megan talks about her introduction to genetic genealogy, about the field as it stands today, and about some of the possible future directions of DNA testing.
The Genetic Genealogist: How long have you been actively involved in genetic genealogy, and how did you become interested in the field?
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak: I’ve been an almost lifelong genealogist, but the genetic component entered the picture for me around 1999-2000 thanks to some work I was doing with the U.S. Army. I track down families of soldiers still unaccounted for — mostly from Korea, but also Southeast Asia, WWII and even WWI. It’s my responsibility to locate the next of kin and three mtDNA candidates — in other words, three relatives of the soldier who share the same mtDNA (maternal) line. Because of this, when the first couple of companies launched in 2000, I was one of the first in line simply because I had already had the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of how DNA testing could be used for genealogical purposes.
TGG: Has genetic genealogy helped you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?
MSS: Definitely. My first experience with genetic genealogy was the Smolenyak tale featured in the “Did She Marry Her Cousin? episode of DNA Stories in the video player on your blog. It turned out my hypothesis was wrong, and although I was initially disappointed, I realized that I had just saved myself years of effort and who knows how much money trying to prove something that was completely false. That’s what made me an early proponent. I realized right out of the gate that DNA can sometimes resolve mysteries that the paper trail never will.
TGG: Lately the news has been filled with stories about the ethical issues associated with genetic testing, largely as a result of the launch of new companies like 23andMe, deCODEme, and Navigenics. How does genetic genealogy factor into this discussion?
MSS: As much as I’d like to claim that we’re a different animal, the fact is that these new companies provide some ancestral information. In fact, there already seems to be slightly greater emphasis on this aspect than when they first launched, perhaps because they’ve realized there’s an existing market. So going forward, it’s virtually inevitable that the general public will intermingle genetic genealogy companies and offerings with these new tests and companies. Overall, I’m delighted with these new possibilities, but I confess there’s a small part of me that’s mourning a loss of innocence of sorts. Strictly genealogical tests didn’t give away your secrets (well, except for the occasional NPE!), so folks could feel quite comfortable taking them. Now, with the addition of medical and other information, people will likely think twice. Having said that, I think we all knew this time was coming and I’m glad to see the field moving forward.
TGG: What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?
MSS: My poor little brain can’t fathom all the possibilities, but I believe we’re entering the genomics age. The genetic genie is out of the bottle, so it’s time to buckle our seatbelts and hang on (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?)! I’ve always thought it would be the medical aspects of genetics that would drive things forward in a big way and that’s clearly happening. I can’t even begin to imagine all the ethical issues we’ll all wrestle with, but because of the medical benefits, I think it’s inevitable that genetics will become a routine part of our everyday lives. Just as we have a generation or so that’s grown up taking computers and the internet for granted, I think the same will be true of genetics for those being born now.
What’s especially interesting to me is the public’s involvement in all this. I recently interviewed with a journalist from Le Monde, and remarked that this is the first scientific revolution that will at least be partly driven by public participation. An obvious example of this is impatient genealogists applying pressure on scientists to uncover more ancestrally-informative SNPs. We do this because we want to know more about our roots. Imagine the amplification of this phenomenon when the mass public starts campaigning for specific genetic research for medical conditions that affect their families. And I suspect that the existence of companies like 23andMe will only encourage this kind of (to me, positive!) behavior.
Because genetic genealogy has been around since 2000, I think anyone trying to get a handle on this interplay between the scientific community and the general public would be smart to study us. And yes, genetic genealogists will definitely benefit from all the advances. Remember, it was just circa 2000-2001 that a 4-marker Y-DNA test sold to the public was considered amazing, and now, none of us would waste our time with such a test. We ain’t seen nothing yet!
TGG: Aside from genetic genealogy, what other genealogy-related projects are you involved with?
MSS: Phew! A lot! I already mentioned my work with the U.S. Army, but I’m also the Chief Family Historian and North American spokesperson for Ancestry.com and co-founder of RootsTelevision.com, a free, online channel of genealogical programming. And I write and speak and consult for television programs. Basically, I’m all about getting the g-word out there!
TGG: Thank you, Megan, for this interesting and very enjoyable interview!
Other posts in the TGG Interview Series: