A few months ago, I stumbled upon an article in the University of Iowa Alumni Magazine featuring a class called, “Who Are You: Revelations from the Personal Genome.” It was the perfect combination of everything I wanted from a seminar while I was at UI — free genetic genealogy research with the help of an expert to answer my dumb questions — but never got. That’s why I decided to reach out to that expert to get his thoughts on the class, genetic genealogy, and how I could streamline my genealogy process.
Every year around August, college towns across America swell with well-meaning parents driving U-Hauls bursting with futons, mini fridges, and the personal effects of nervous teenagers sitting in the front seat trying to act cool and collected — but are really so scared they might fill their pants.
After all, they’re about to turn the page on the next chapter of their lives. One that offers them an opportunity to start fresh, find new friends, and really find their place in the world…
…which makes it the perfect to get started in genealogy.
Or so says Professor Bryant McAllister who teaches the class “Who Are You: Revelations from the Personal Genome.” Offered exclusively to freshman at the University of Iowa, the class provides students with the opportunity to take a genetic test from 23andMe and spend the course of the semester analyzing the results with the help of Bryant, an evolutionary biologist.
“You not only learn about genetics, but you learn deeply about yourself in a unique way,” he said back in 2016 to the UI Alumni Magazine. “Your biological identity can now be used to reveal your personal identity.”
Now in its third year, the class has expanded to include a student group called the “Personal Genome Learning Center” as well as a monthly meeting at the Iowa City Public Library focused on bringing genetic genealogy to the community.
I had the opportunity to talk with Professor McAllister about his work — and get his insights on how beginners can get started themselves.
First off, I just want to express how jealous I am that your class is offered at my alma mater now. What made you decide to start seminar two years after I graduated?
[Laughs] Well, a lot of it grew out of the growth and interest that people have had in these direct to consumer platforms. 23andMe has been around for about 10 years, and preceding that, [National Geographic’s] Genographic Project had started — they drew a few customers initially but not that many.
Over the past four to five years, it’s just really exploded in the amount of interest — 23andMe, AncestryDNA, FamilyTreeDNA, etc — and there’s a number of different factors that caused this.
One of the biggest ones is the fact that they dropped the prices. Initially, 23andMe was $1000 but then they dropped it down to $400 and then down to $99. That’s when it really started taking off.
On my course website, I have some figures of some of the early growth of the 23andMe customer database.
This is the first-year seminar that you teach?
Yes. On that, there’s a blog where my students post on. I used to contribute a lot on the customer growth topic.
This was back when both 23andMe and AncestryDNA of them were reaching about 1 million participants. Recently, Ancestry announced they’re hitting 4 million in their database. 23andMe is up to 2 million. Ancestry grew like a million people in 3 months this year.
That’s interesting. I figured 23andMe was the one people knew more about due to their huge marketing efforts.
To me, what Ancestry offers customer is what most people are interested: the ancestry composition report. It’s also a much cheaper price point now.
That’s the projection of where your ancestors came from in relation to geography and the world.
Right. “Oh, I want to see where I’m from! What’s the cheapest way I can do that?”
Ancestry serves that purpose pretty well. I think that’s probably why they’re bigger.
There’s also been some negative publicity for 23andMe. It’s more expensive and it’s more daunting for customer on what they actually get from that so they don’t sell as many kits.
That’s true. 23andMe seems more geared towards the health composition reports rather than the ancestry reports.
That’s right. I use it for my course because they give you more of a comprehensive set of reports for your test though. The spectrum of different things they interpret for a person in 23andMe is much broader. So for the first-year seminar, we can cover a lot more material directly related to the test results over the semester.
Whereas in the Ancestry test, unless you’re into genealogy and ancestry, you won’t get as much out of it. The genealogy is wonderful though. I use it personally a lot.
AncestryDNA allows you to connect with the family trees of relative matches as well.
Correct. But to get the greatest utility out of it, you need to become a subscriber — and that’s not cheap.
It’s something like $100 a year and most students don’t have that kind of money.
Ancestry’s good but it serves a different market.
It seems, though, that 23andMe is becoming more of a GATTACA-esque organization every year. What’s your opinion of the ethics of allowing a private entity access to your genetic material?
At this point, I don’t think there’s an inherent answer — but I can’t say there will never be one.
That’s reality. We’re in the early days of this. We don’t necessarily know what the consequences of millions of genetic profiles in a database that some company owns are. And we don’t know what the consequences will be.
At this point, I don’t really have a sort of Big Brother type of concern or things like that. I know the spectrum of things are such that if you might be upset by something you learn from the tests. Like finding a new relative you didn’t know existed. That could be troubling to someone and having to deal with navigating that.
A student of mine had a test that showed that she was a grandchild of a person she never met — AND that she had a half-first cousin out there.
What does she do now? Does she reach out to her grandfather? Does that person even want them to know?
Has anything else that “dramatic” come up in your classes?
I had a student who had been contacted by a close relative who was an adoptee. It turned out she had an aunt who had not told the family that she had put this child up for adoption.
That student was put into that position of being a mediator between someone searching for biological family and knowing the identity of the person they’re searching for. She had to sort of navigate that interaction.
And that’s something I make very clear to my students on the first day as they’re considering if they want to do it: They could be put into that position.
At the end of the day, they don’t have to participate in my class. They don’t have to do a test. It’s optional. But I also make it clear that you don’t have to take part in that feature of 23andMe. You can turn it off. DNA relatives is an option. You don’t have to let people discover you in the database if you don’t want to.
I read another quote from you where you said all genealogists should know what they’re purchasing. What sort of things should we look for when researching a DNA testing product?
One thing I like to look at is what technology they’re using, because there’s a lot. Plenty of companies out there offer DNA tests that aren’t reputable. For example, some people looking for AncestryDNA get tricked into “Ancestry by DNA.”
That sounds so scammy.
It’s sketchy. They sell a kit for about $69 or something like that, so it’s cheaper than AncestryDNA. BUT they use this really crappy technology to do DNA analysis. All they give you is a crude ancestry estimate showing you where your ancestors are from. It’s a really bad test.
So knowing what the company is doing and what they’re going to return to you is good to do before purchasing.
What’s the interest group you started called and what entails being a part of it?
There’s two prongs here.
One is a student group I run on campus called the “Personal Genome Learning Center.” It’s a volunteer group students can participate in. It started through a grant I got from the Carver Trust to set up the group. It’s an undergraduate organization that gives students access to a free test from Ancestry or 23andMe or FamilyTree with the goal of using their knowledge of biology to look at what these tests offer.
We also show them how you interpret it, and allow them to apply what they know in the classroom to help community members understand better what they got with their tests.
So community members can take part in this group as well? It’s not just relegated to students.
The students gear up to do things in the community like helping those who have done a DNA test to interpret what they have gotten out of those test results.
The offshoot of that is this monthly meeting we’ve started at the Iowa City Public Library. It’s a DNA interest group and my students provide some of the programming for those meetings. That group is open to anyone.
Anyone in the community is welcome to come.
How has the reception been from the students in terms of both the class that you teach and also the group and meetings?
A lot of them want something shocking because I start out all the time telling them they could find something that might be troubling. So many end up a little disappointed when they don’t find anything surprising.
“I wonder what’s scandalous about my life,” sort of thing.
Exactly. In my first year seminar, I have them write a paper at the end of a semester. A sort of “Who I am” sort of thing. It’s supposed to be a reflection of what they learned from their DNA analysis.
Some of them write things like, “I came to class thinking I was a boring white person and left the class finding that I’m a boring white person.” [laughs]
What would your best piece of advice be to someone who wants to get involved in ancestry but doesn’t know how or where to start?
It’s two pronged: Genealogy — the paper record part — and DNA.
I’m not an expert in genealogy. I used the DNA side to supplement. A lot of people think about genealogy as how deep you can go. These DNA tests don’t work very deep. They work broadly.
The genetics are going to connect you with relatives. You’ll get tons of DNA relatives — a lot of which will be deep. The historical part (or genealogy part) of it is putting a face on that connection. Who is this person and who is responsible for connecting us via DNA?
Another thing I communicate very strongly is whenever you start getting into those distant DNA relatives, you shouldn’t spend a lot of time and energy finding who that common ancestor is. Because that range of 4th – 6th cousins could be 10th cousins, and the likelihood you’re going to find a connection there is much lower in some instances.
So I tend to emphasize focusing on closeness. Test people in your family with whom you know your relationship to them. And then you can use them to not only find that, “Oh this person is not only connected to me, but they’re also connected to my 2nd cousin over here. And that means they’re connected on this side of my family.”
What would your advice be to me?
In this case, if you have individuals who are connected through your grandfather, you can use them and individuals who not only match you but match that cousin — so those shared ancestors — and realize that there’s a member on another side of my family.
Finding those connections is ultimately you hitting a cousin who has some sort of genealogy that can help you place that person. If you have any information, that helps because you can help that person find a connection. If not, it’s an instance of you finding a first or second cousin. So they can say I have this person or that person who served in Vietnam.
Developing possible suspects and testing those hypotheses is the way to do it.
Why do you think that genealogy and genetic research is important for someone to get into?
I never try to convince people to take a test. It’s not up to me. What I DO want to do is inform people of who they are, what they offer, and inform consumers of what they’re getting into.
I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone to learn about genetics. It’s fundamentally important to modern life in many ways. The public is generally ignorant to genetics so this allows me to develop a platform to spread knowledge and competence in genetics within the public at large.
That’s my main drive: To help build this broader understanding of genetics that not only is important for this but important for other things like understanding GMOs, how medicine changes in the future and how it’ll eventually be tailored to your unique genetic profile. So much of it infiltrates our modern lives.
So I want to facilitate some understanding there using this platform as a case with them learning within the context of the platform.
Using genetic literacy as a gateway to broader scientific literacy.
Exactly. To me, this is biology’s chance to seize upon something that astronomy has had in terms of bringing in the public. You have amateur astronomers. You have communities of people dedicated to astronomy.
There are already a lot of amateur geneticists out there. But this is contingent on biology departments taking advantage of this and helping build the knowledge instead of allowing people to flounder.
We also can’t let the companies control all of the dialogue. It needs to be beyond the advertisements. We need to build some real literacy and knowledge about genetics to help people understand what they’re getting.
Prof. Bryant McAllister is an associate professor of biology at the University of Iowa. His research focuses on evolutionary genetics and genome evolution.