Tim Janzen is a community leader in using autosomal DNA (what we inherit equally from both parents) to trace and affirm family connections. With an extensive background in traditional genealogy and especially Mennonite genealogy, Tim has lead efforts to develop advanced tools. He is married, and his wife Rachel is one of the loveliest people I have had the pleasure to meet.

Tim has most recently partnered with the renowned CeCe Moore to found the Institute for Genetic Genealogy.

Tim Janzen

Dr. Tim Janzen

Rebekah: Please tell me about yourself. Are you currently working or retired? What are your other hobbies or interests outside of genealogy?

Tim: I am a family practice doctor and I have a full time practice at South Tabor Family Physicians in Portland, Oregon. I am married to Rachel Janzen and have 4 wonderful children: Paul, Marilee, Andrew, and Bethany. My primary hobby besides genealogy and genetic genealogy is birding. I have been a birder since 1983. I particularly enjoy Big Day birding, where one tries to find as many species in one day as possible in a given state or county. Frankly, I am interested in almost all areas of science. I also enjoy playing basketball and running.

Rebekah: How long have you been actively involved in genealogy, and how did you become interested in the field?

Tim: I started getting interested in genealogy when I was about 14 and I was definitely a fairly serious genealogist by the time I was 16. My grandfather, Paul Youngman, was a major influence on my life. He wrote two books about our family history. One of these books chronicled the life of his father, Charles L. Youngman, who was a doctor in the small town of Harveyville, Kansas. The other book traced a portion of the lineage of his mother, Anna Brown Armstrong, whose ancestry is of interest at least in part because she descends from at least two people who were kidnapped by Indians as children and were adopted into the Wyandot Indian tribe. My grandfather’s first cousin, Ralph Armstrong, was also a very serious genealogist and was an inspiration to me. My father’s ancestry is almost entirely Low German Mennonite, so I began researching his ancestry when I was in high school as well. Alan Peters helped spark my interest in Mennonite genealogy in a very broad way. Alan has been very influential in almost all aspects of Mennonite genealogy, particularly in the development of the Mennonite genealogy database known as the GRANDMA database. Alan kindly allowed me to visit him in California twice when I was in college and medical school. In 1996, my wife and I took a Mennonite tour to Ukraine to visit the villages where my father’s ancestors had lived. This trip also had a profound impact on me.

Rebekah: At what point did you decide to become involved in genetic genealogy?

Tim: I attended the National Genealogical Society convention in Portland, Oregon in 2001. At that time, Scott Woodward and his associates at the BYU Center for Molecular Genealogy were collecting blood samples so that they could do DNA testing for genealogical purposes. The project sounded very interesting, and so I gave a blood sample to Scott Woodward, as well as a GEDCOM file that included my known ancestors. The Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation was formed shortly after that in 2002. In 2004, Amelia Reimer started the Mennonite DNA project at Family Tree DNA. I became actively involved in that project, because I saw the potential for Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA testing to help solve Mennonite genealogical research questions. I then remembered that I had been tested by the SMGF and subsequently began extracting Mennonite Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA results from the SMGF database. In December of 2005, I realized the potential that autosomal DNA testing held for Mennonite genealogy and began actively collecting Mennonite samples for the SMGF. My efforts, along with others who were also involved, led to the collection of DNA samples from about 2000 Mennonites that were donated to the SMGF. The sale of the SMGF to Ancestry.com forced me to change my focus to other companies such as 23andMe and FTDNA that are also doing autosomal DNA testing.

Rebekah: What genetic ancestry tests have you taken?

Tim: I have taken almost every major ancestry test available. These tests would include the 111-marker STR panel at FTDNA, a full mtDNA sequence at FTDNA, Family Finder at FTDNA, the Big Y at FTDNA, the SMGF test as noted above, 23andMe’s tests (versions 2-4 and the exome), Ancestry.com’s AncestryDNA test, the Genographic Project’s Geno 2.0 test, Britains DNA’s Chromo2 complete test (Y, mtDNA, atDNA, and red-head test), and Full Genomes’ complete Y-chromosome sequence. I haven’t yet done the DNA Tribes test or complete genome sequencing, but I am planning to do both of those tests at some point as well.

Rebekah: Have you tested family members?

Tim: Yes. I have tested all of my close relatives and quite a few close and distant cousins. In total, I have done autosomal testing on about 100 relatives, as well as about 25 other Mennonites who are either friends of mine or are very distantly related to me.

Rebekah: Have you ever been surprised by your or your family’s test results?

Tim: Yes. The most surprising result I ever had was when I did the 23andMe test on two sisters who are second cousins to my mother. When the results came back, the sisters proved to be half-sisters and not full sisters. I had to call both of these people and convey the information to them as delicately as possible. Fortunately, both of them took it fairly well. In another case, a person who I had thought was a third cousin to my mother turned out to have an NPE in her line. This meant that this person wasn’t a third cousin to my mother after all, even though we had been collaborating on our shared ancestral line for over 30 years.

Rebekah: Has genetic genealogy helped you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?

Tim: Yes. I have used autosomal DNA testing to establish the parentage of my great-great-great-grandfather Jacob Youngman (b. 1823). (See:  https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/21841126/Youngman%20DNA%20summary.doc) The family story that my father has distant Jewish ancestry was confirmed by autosomal testing at 23andMe.  In the FTDNA database, I found a person who traces their ancestry back to northern Belgium who is a very close match to my Y-chromosome haplotype. This has led me to believe that this was the area my Janzen progenitor had been living prior to when he fled to Poland due to persecution of the Mennonites, probably in the 1500s.

Rebekah: Are you involved as a group project administrator?

Tim: Yes.

Rebekah: If so, what made you decide to become involved?

Tim: I first became involved with administration of The Mennonite DNA Project in 2005, particularly in regards to the data that was coming from the SMGF. I have had a longstanding interest in Mennonite genealogical research so involvement in the Mennonite DNA project was an obdvious fit for me as well, particularly with my interest in science and medicine. I also became very interested in Y-chromosome Haplogroup J, since this is the haplogroup that I am a member of. This eventually led to an invitation from Bonnie Schrack for me to be a co-administrator with her of the FTDNA Haplogroup J project. I also started several small surname projects at FTDNA when I noticed that the surnames didn’t have a project dedicated to that surname. My goals as a project administrator have always been to help other people better understand their results and to find genealogical connections using the data where possible.

Rebekah: What projects do you administer or co-administer?

Tim: I am a co-administrator of the FTDNA Haplogroup J-L24 and Haplogroup J2 projects. I am also a co-administrator of the FTDNA Low German Mennonite project, the FTDNA Mennonite autosomal project, and several small FTDNA surname projects such as Zane and Bigelow.

Rebekah: Have you witnessed success stories in your projects?

Tim: Yes. However, it depends on what you define as success. Many times in genetic genealogy we find that one answer is replaced by additional questions. Probably the most surprising finding I have had thus far is from the Mennonite DNA project where it turns out that the most common Mennonite surnames such as Dyck, Friesen, Penner, and Wiebe only had one progenitor for each surname. In at least one case, mitochondrial DNA testing in the Mennonite DNA project helped establish that two women with the surname Wiebe who were born in the early 1800s were in fact sisters.

Rebekah: What advice would you give someone starting out in genealogy or personal ancestry DNA testing?

Tim: I would suggest that they dive right in and get as involved as they have the time and energy for. In terms of genealogical research, I generally suggest that people start by collecting as much genealogical information as possible from their close relatives and then branch out into other online resources such as FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, My Heritage, and other similar sources. In terms of personal DNA testing, it makes sense to do at least one autosomal test such as FTDNA’s Family Finder or 23andMe’s test on yourself and your oldest living close relatives. For Y-chromosome testing, I suggest that men start by testing at least 37 markers at FTDNA. I generally suggest people make mtDNA testing a lower priority , since it is the least informative form of DNA testing for genealogical purposes. It is helpful if researchers look carefully at their pedigree chart and then develop a testing strategy to solve at least one genealogical research problem, as I did with my Youngman autosomal DNA project.

Rebekah: What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?

Tim: I continue to believe that genetic genealogy has the potential to revolutionize how we do genealogical research. Traditional genealogical research where we use written records will never be replaced. However, genetic genealogy will help us verify the ancestries we believe to be true and in some cases prove that genealogical connections we thought to be true are incorrect. It seems clear to me that autosomal DNA testing holds the greatest potential for helping the typical genealogist solve genealogical research problems that involve ancestors who lived within the past 300 years. I believe that with time we will determine phased haplotypes for at least portions of the genomes of many of our ancestors. Within 5 years, whole genome sequencing will become relatively commonplace and the results from that data will complement the data we are currently getting from autosomal SNP chips. Specific autosomal SNPs and short phased haplotypes will be linked to specific localities and/or ancestors. The Y-chromosome SNP tree and the mitochondrial SNP tree will continue to be fleshed out with sequence data from thousands more testees. This will allow us to better pinpoint the areas of origin of our ancestors on the paternal and maternal lines of descent.