Interviews of the leaders in family history and genetic genealogy will be a focus of our blog. We are lucky to have for our first interview with Roberta Estes of DNA Explain.
Roberta retired from information technology consulting several years ago to become a full time genetic genealogy professional. Between her work, personal research, and her family, Roberta supports animal advocacy. She also produces some of the loveliest quilts I have seen.
Rebekah: Please tell me about yourself. Are you currently working or retired? What are your other hobbies or interests outside of genealogy?
Roberta: I work more than ever now. In addition to my own genealogy, I write the Personalized DNA Reports for Family Tree DNA through www.dnaexplain.com. I enjoy doing this a great deal, because I get to spend some concerted time and effort working to help someone better understand genetic genealogy and their own test results. The part I love the best is putting the history, genealogy, and genetics together for them. Aside from that, I quilt and in the summer, I have a perennial garden that completely refuses to stop growing weeds.
Rebekah: How long have you been actively involved in genealogy, and how did you become interested in the field?
Roberta: When I was pregnant with my daughter, I wasn’t working, and I decided that I wanted to learn something about my father’s side of the family. He died in a car accident in 1963, and I did not grow up near any of his family – so they seemed like a very interesting mystery. I didn’t even know that name of what I was beginning to do was “genealogy.” I just wanted to know about my family. I’m glad I started when I did because all of the older people I met then that did know about the family history are long gone now.
Rebekah: At what point did you decide to become involved in genetic genealogy?
Roberta: I was a very early adopter of genetic genealogy. I first tested myself and my husband. I formed the Estes surname project in 2002, I believe, in order to help sort through the myriad Estes lines and solve a number of mysteries. I still remember the night Bennett Greenspan called me back, at home, at 9:30, and we talked for an hour about genetic genealogy. I told him I wasn’t sure I could administer a project, and he insisted that I could and promised to help me if needed. I don’t know if he remembers making that promise or not, but now I administer or co-administer many projects, and Bennett probably regrets ever making that promise.
Rebekah: What genetic ancestry tests have you taken?
Roberta: I have taken all of the mainstream commercial tests available in the genetic genealogy space with the exception of the Y tests, of course. I have cousins sit proxy for me for those tests.
Rebekah: Have you tested family members?
Roberta: Anyone who will swab!
Rebekah: Have you ever been surprised by your or your family’s test results?
Roberta: The biggest surprise has been that my brother, who I knew existed but didn’t know who he was, when found, didn’t match the family Estes Y-DNA. At that time, autosomal DNA testing as we know it today, didn’t exist, so we took an older type of test but the results were “inconclusive.” But the first day autosomal testing was introduced for genealogy, you can bet that I purchased two test kits. At that time, they cost more each than the Big Y does today. When the results came back, it was evident that we were not half siblings. By that time, I certainly loved him, and the DNA aspect didn’t change a thing between us. However, I then realized that maybe Dave was my father’s child and I wasn’t. I talked about that desperation and how I even considered exhuming my father to find out. (http://dna-explained.com/2013/04/30/digging-up-dad-exhumation-and-forensic-testing-alternatives/)
I didn’t exhume Dad, and I loved Dave just as much as if he had been my bio brother. I wrote about that in my blog when I had to say a final good bye to my brother. (http://dna-explained.com/2012/11/10/semper-fi-dave/)
Rebekah: Has genetic genealogy helped you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?
Roberta: Many brick walls have fallen. One of the most profound was when we proved that Marcus Younger, who we knew did not share a common paternal line with the Thomas Younger line of Halifax County, because their descendants’ Y-chromosomes didn’t match, was indeed related to him. I used autosomal DNA of the descendants of both men, and we tested until we found people who did match. This is many generations removed, so the matching segments were small, but small or not, they were there, and that’s all that matters. I wrote about that as well. (http://dna-explained.com/2013/11/17/proving-men-whose-y-lines-dont-match-are-related/) The next day, literally, we also confirmed a long standing rumor of his wife’s maiden name, actually, quite by accident with a bit of serendipity thrown in!!! (http://dna-explained.com/2013/11/18/be-still-my-heart/)
That was an amazing red letter week.
Rebekah: Are you involved as a group project administrator? If so, what made you decide to become involved? What projects do you administrate or co-administrate?
Roberta: I administer or co-administer 46 projects. Many are very small and have only one or two participants because they are unusual surnames, like Rapparlie, Kobel, and Kvochick. Others, like the very large Cumberland Gap projects are co-administered by several people who share the workload. I certainly could not do what I do without my co-admins. I’m particularly fond, of course, of my own surname projects, Bolton, Crumley, Claxton, Dobkins, Estes, Ferverda, Kirsch, Kobel, Lore/Lord, Miller (Brethren), Speaks, Vannoy, and Younger. However, my haplogroup projects and Native American focused projects allow me to make contributions to the Native people by consolidating data into projects and studying the migration and settlement patterns of the ancestors through their descendants today. I also maintain the Native Heritage Project blog where I document early occurrences of Native people in documented records. This history, plus DNA, will hopefully pay off someday by allowing us to be able to much further refine what we know about tribes and language groups and where they were found.
Rebekah: Have you witnessed success stories in your projects?
Roberta: One of my favorite things to do is to connect the dots for both project members and clients. Three of my favorite stories involve helping people, then discovering that we were related. I wrote about one, Marja and Me. (http://dna-explained.com/2012/08/20/marja-and-me/) When I solved the long standing Marcus Younger/Thomas Younger mystery, I also stumbled across a new cousin, an adoptee, who had never before made contact with anyone she was biologically related to. Now, she has at least one proven ancestor and a name to go along with him – plus me – a crazy genetic genealogy cousin. In another case, and this article will be published in another couple of months, I had worked with a woman for years on a very difficult project, only to discover one day that she and I are related, and we were able to discern which family in Germany, even though we cannot identify the exact ancestor. Genetic genealogy is absolutely amazing and holds surprises every day.
Rebekah: What advice would you give someone starting out in genealogy or personal ancestry DNA testing?
Roberta: I see a lot of people who are very excited about their foray into genetic genealogy, but they have misset expectations that one test will “give you a family tree.” They are then, of course, disappointed. Take a little time and learn about the basics of how the different tests work, then decide which one or ones are best for your family situation and the particular mystery you are trying to solve. I wrote an article about the four kinds of DNA and how to utilize it for genetic genealogy. (http://dna-explained.com/2012/10/01/4-kinds-of-dna-for-genetic-genealogy/)
Everyone can test at least for mitochondrial DNA and autosomal DNA personally, so our ancestors are just waiting to tell us their secrets our DNA holds.
I don’t think that people who have tested reap all of the benefits and information available from their tests at Family Tree DNA. One of the benefits of participating in the 52 Ancestors in 52 weeks challenge, and making every story DNA connected, is that I have had to really look at each family and ancestor and wring every bit of information about the DNA tests taken by me and other descendants. (http://dna-explained.com/?s=52+ancestors)
Something else amazing that has happened due to genetic genealogy is that in more than one case, I’ve been able to identify the original family location in Europe as a result of DNA testing. This was a highly collaborate effort, but it really paid off. (http://dna-explained.com/2012/10/18/the-speak-family-3-continents-and-a-dash-of-luck/)
In the fall of 2013, a group of Speaks descendants arranged a trip and went back to the British Isles, to our ancestral home. I’ve been writing about that as well. (http://dna-explained.com/tag/2013-dna-trip/) It has been an amazing journey that started more than a decade ago with a simple cheek swab.
Rebekah: What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?
Roberta: Based on the changes I’ve seen in the past 14 or 15 years of genetic genealogy, I expect that after we can bring the cost of sequencing the human genome under the $1000 mark that we will make another huge advance in genetic genealogy. I hope that one day we can reconstruct our ancestors via the DNA passed to their descendants, and we truly will be able to take a DNA test and receive a tree.