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Genealogy, forensics, genomics and cowboy boots

Genealogy, forensics, genomics and cowboy boots

Posted: Wednesday, February 22, 2012 5:00 pm

Last weekend I attended a workshop on DNA testing at the Tennessee State Library and Archives (L&A) building in downtown Nashville. I did not really expect to learn much scientifically, but I was excited to find out who else would attend such a workshop. In a way, I was researching the attendees. I was not disappointed.
The L&A building sits across the street from the state capitol building. It contains many impressive record collections, including newspapers dating back to 1791. That is five years before Tennessee was admitted to the Union as the 16th state. It is an impressive columned structure with a marbleized interior that elegantly conveys respect for the World War II veterans it was constructed to memorialize.
I checked in, claimed my badge and walked up several flights of stairs to a large room where the workshop was nearly ready to begin. I canvassed the room. Perhaps 40 men and women of all ages, colors, shapes and manners of dress were seated around a heavy U-shaped wooden table. Rows of folding chairs offered humble accommodation for the remaining dozen or so of us. The chatter was informal and lively compared to the formal feel of the room.
I was amazed (and pleased) at the number of participants. What had brought them all to this workshop? One fellow “working” the small throng of participants was not wearing a badge.
I decided that he might be one of the two presenters: J. Mark Lowe CG, FUGA or John F. Baker. As he cruised past me, I introduced myself and told him about this column. 
Much to my pleasant surprise, Mark relayed that he reads my column and was hoping to meet me. I decoded the credentials following Mark’s name on the introductory slide: CG (Certified Genealogist) and FUGA (Fellow of the Utah Genealogical Association). Aha, I was embedded in a sea of genealogists assembled to refine their skills in the use of DNA testing! 
Mark, an animated and compelling speaker, who commanded the lion’s share of the workshop, impressed me with his understanding of DNA testing as applied to genealogy. He is one of the genealogists working behind the scenes on the TV show, “Who do you think you are?”  Mark has also assisted in the identification of the recovered human remains, which is the genealogy-forensics connection.
John, a professional genealogist, shared a fascinating case study that culminated in his book, “The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation.” As a seventh grader, Young John found a picture of a slave family in his social studies textbook felt eerily familiar.
Years later he would prove that those very same slaves were his ancestors, while perfecting his research skills in the very challenging area of African-American genealogical research. 
One of the thorniest problems in genealogy is quantifying the distance in a relationship between two individuals once mtDNA (direct maternal) or Y-DNA (direct paternal) testing has established an ancestry link. Genomic techniques based on the number and lengths of shared autosomal segments between two individuals could help genealogists significantly in some cases.
I left the workshop with an appreciation of the commonalities in problem solving between the sciences and genealogy. I also left with a sense of the different “problem” universes that we inhabit.
The world of the genealogist felt more about proving the link from “Person A” to “Person B.” That proof ultimately requires the type of documentation that resides in places like the Tennessee State Library and Archive. And as such, genealogists are expert researchers.
On the other hand, I perform exploratory data analysis starting from the DNA of “Person A.” I ask questions like, “What can I learn about this person’s current or future state of health or genetic anomalies that could be passed on to their children?” Like genealogists, I also use resources like, along with mtDNA and Y-DNA testing to help build out family trees.
Since the gold standard of genealogy is paper records (or what once were paper records), the time window for the professional genealogist is shorter than mine. I am very interested in going back much, much further. And the only way that I can do that is to read the information that resides in one’s “DNA book” armed with the knowledge of rates of mutations.
I have much to learn about the world view of the genealogist and perhaps I can even teach them a bit about the advances of genomics that could simplify certain aspects of their work.
 Now onto the cowboy boots … After completion of the workshop, I made time to learn about the finer points between Lucchese, Corral, Ariat, Dan Post, Old Gringo and Justin boots. Although I do not enjoy wearing or collecting high heels, I am right up there with Imelda Marcos when it comes to wearing and enjoying cowboy boots! Ya otta see my new “vintage” corrals!
Editor’s note: Nancy has worked in scientific research and development for 27 years. She blogs at NeuronalBeauty. Published in The Messenger 2.22.12

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