Starting a DNA journey can seem overwhelming or be a daunting task for some, we spoke to Diahan Southard, Founder of Your DNA Guide for insight on how to navigate through the process. Your DNA Guide can take you step by step through any kind of DNA test in a way that you will understand and even enjoy.
How were drawn to genetics and the DNA industry and what was the inspiration behind founding Your DNA Guide?
Originally, I wanted to be a forensic anthropologist. Advice from my high school English teacher led me to volunteer in a college lab working on the DNA of ancient Egyptian mummies. That project led to the first genetic genealogy database, the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. Eventually the foundation was sold to Ancestry.com. At the time I was having babies and wasn’t looking for full-time work, so I started Your DNA Guide as an educational resource for individuals who had taken a DNA test, but weren’t sure how to use it to find out more about their family.
With so many DNA tests available to the consumer what do you advise people look out for and to be cautious of when selecting?
I like to try to get to know the company a bit. What is their motivation for existing in this space? For example, the goal of 23andMe is to personalize your health, so they are very interested in the research required to make that happen. But AncestryDNA and My Heritage DNA are offering testing to support their robust offering of online genealogy records. All three companies are giving you a very similar product, but their purpose is different. Understanding their motivations just helps you better understand how their product may develop in the future.
Security and privacy are other concerns. It is so important to read their consent forms to be sure you understand what you are giving them access to.
How accurate are DNA test results, would you recommend that consumers compare their results through different companies?
“Accurate” is a difficult word to use here, as there are many aspects of your DNA test. When you are looking at the ethnicity predictions, they are just that: predictions. These predictions are highly dependent on the reference populations; the people the company is comparing you against. For example, if your family is from Poland, but the company doesn’t have a Polish reference population, they aren’t going to be able to tell you that you are from Poland. So they will tell you that you are from somewhere else. And that won’t be “accurate.”
But there is another part of your results: your DNA match list. For each match the company predicts a relationship based on the amount of DNA you share. However, it is impossible to determine the “accurate” relationship of two people based only on the amount of DNA they share. So the company may say that Sally is your 2nd cousin, but actually, she is your first cousin once removed (the child of your first cousin). In this case, the prediction was inaccurate – it did not match your known relationship.
Testing at multiple companies is a good strategy as it will expose you to the variations in reporting at each company, and importantly, give you access to more DNA matches. The important thing to remember when comparing ethnicity results across companies is that each company has a different way of doing things. Different reference populations, different algorithms, and different reporting standards. So you absolutely WILL get different results from different companies. But that does not mean the science is not accurate. It just means that you get multiple opinions about your heritage. Likely your “true” heritage can be found as you find trends in the various test results.
What have you found are some of the more common aspects that people are searching for when undertaking testing?
Most of the people I talk to fall into one of two categories: adoptees looking for birth family, or genealogists looking for ancestors. But really, these two groups are looking for the same thing: connection and identity. It is a core human motivation to seek after these things. Genealogy, or the process of finding and documenting your ancestors, weather it is your parents or 3X great grandparents, is a very powerful way to understand your own narrative.
How can Your DNA Guide help consumers navigate through their DNA journey?
Our goal is to meet you where you are and help you get where you want to go. We break down the science into small, digestible pieces, so you can learn only what you need to learn, and then move on with your discovery. We do this by providing printed or digital quick sheets. These are four page laminated guides that detail only what you need to know about each testing company, each testing type, as well as a simple guide to help you find an ancestor.
I recently published Your DNA Guide – the Book. It is a step-by-step guide to finding any ancestor you may be searching for. You start the book by choosing the ancestor you want to research, and then I ask you some questions about the DNA test results you have. Depending on your answers, I take you to a specific page in the book. So if you look at your results and have situation A, I tell you to go to page 27. If you have situation B, you need to turn to page 43. It is meant to be personalized and customized to your own situation. For more on “Your DNA Guide – the Book” check out www.yourdnaguide.com/your-dna-guide-the-book.
But we have found that the fastest way to an answer is just to talk to an expert. So we have Mentoring services that allow us to meet with clients one-on-one to take them through their specific question to give them next steps to take to research their ancestor.
What is next on the cards for Your DNA Guide?
Oh I have so many ideas all the time. I am currently working on an online workshop that will give anyone who has taken a DNA test the chance to really dive in and understand how to use their results. It will be a workshop, so very hands-on with access to a mentor to help you and tons of feedback on their progress. I am really excited about the possibilities the workshops will unlock for people who just need a push to put them hot on the trail of discovering their ancestor.