In this interview, Diahan Southard, Founder of Your DNA Guide, shares how researching ancient Egyptian mummies led to the inception of the genetic genealogy databases that we know today.
She also discusses the range of emotions felt by families who discover secrets in their own family tree and how to best handle these surprises within the family unit.
Diahan also talks about what she would like to see for the future of genetic genealogy as law enforcement utilizes the tool and how she hopes to use commercial DNA testing to provide children with a sense of identity to limit the number of school shootings.
Laura: Hi, we’re here today with Diahan Southard. Diahan, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background?
Diahan: Well, it’s actually interesting to be here at ISHI, because most of the time, for the last 18 years, I’ve been attending genealogy conferences. So, all of the conversations at lunch and all you hear is about obituaries and death records and that’s all great and interesting, but it’s been extremely exciting for me to sit and hear people actually talking about DNA at every table. Because my background is actually in Microbiology. That’s what my degree is in. So, I’ve been working in the genetic genealogy industry really since it’s been an industry, but I don’t get to talk the DNA side very often. So, it’s been a real pleasure to be among fellow scientists.
Laura: Oh, that’s wonderful. We’re really happy to have you here. So it’s your first year at ISHI?
Diahan: It is my first year at ISHI.
Laura: What do you think so far? I know we’re just getting started, but..
Diahan: You know, it’s been (like I said) wonderful to talk science, but it’s also very obvious how passionate everyone is about their job and about the work that they’re doing. And it’s inspiring. It makes me even more want to know how can I fit in? How can I help? How can my 20 years of experience in my industry overlap and influence what’s going on in the industry today?
In fact, when I was in college (that’s how I got into genetic genealogy), we were researching ancient Egyptian mummies. Ok, so there was this burial ground in Cairo, Egypt, and it was not near any major city. So, everyone was like, “Who are these people? Where did they come from?” And there was a multi-disciplinary approach trying to figure out who they were. So, we were the DNA side. Of course, this was back a long time ago when we could only do mitochondrial DNA testing really. What became of it was that we could do all the mitochondrial DNA typing on these people, and we could tell how they were related to each other maternally, but then how do you figure out who they are? How do you figure out who they were to the rest of the world? And we’re like, “Wouldn’t it be great if we had a database of all the mitochondrial DNA of all the people in the world and then we could figure out who these people where?” And that was really the inception and the idea of genetic genealogy and a database. So, I was part of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which was the very first genetic genealogy effort ever, and we set out with this huge goal that one day we would be able to take some DNA from someone and tell them who they were. And this was a pipe dream. This was something that we hoped could happen, and now it’s happening every day.
Laura: That’s remarkable. So tell us a little bit about your progression. How did you go from the work you were doing with Sorenson to the work that you’re doing today?
Diahan: It’s funny, because I feel like my whole life has just been a series of obvious next steps in a way. Maybe I’m bragging. I shouldn’t brag! So many people worked so hard to figure out what should I do with my life?
Laura: That’s great if you know, though.
Diahan: I think for me, it’s literally just been handed… Like this is the next thing at each step. But you can trace it all back to my high school English teacher. He told all of us graduating seniors, and I tell every high school kid that I know this, that the most impact you can have on your future career you can have at college is to find a professor who is researching something that you’re interested in and get involved. Every professor has to research, so you’ve got to get your hands wet right at the beginning. So, I did, and that’s how I ended up working on this project of these ancient Egyptian mummies in Egypt, which turned into the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation. I worked for the foundation and it’s sister company (it was called Gene Tree at the time), which was one of the first commercial efforts to offer DTC testing to world essentially. But that was all bundled and sold to Ancestry. So, Sorenson became the foundation of Ancestry’s DNA database and their product that they have today. So, that juncture where that sale happened… Ancestry was offering positions to many of us, but at the time, I had young kids and I really wasn’t in a position to want to work fulltime outside the home. I’ve had amazingly cushy position with Sorenson doing as much work as I wanted, and in the office, outside the office, it didn’t really matter. It was really flexible. And, I didn’t want to work full time outside of the home. So, I was kind of left with, “What do I do now?” And thankfully I had some really supportive colleagues, and the three of us started a company together, which didn’t last very long. They got real jobs and had to move on. So, I ended up starting my own business which is now Your DNA Guide, and I’m an educator. I teach anybody who wants to know how to use their DNA to find their family.
Laura: Well let’s talk a little more about that. Let’s start at the beginning. How does your microbiology degree, how does your background, how does that all fit into the work you’re doing now?
Diahan: I think what makes me realize how impactful my microbiology degree has been is when I talk with other genetic genealogists. Most of the others who are in the industry come from the genealogy side. They’ve spend a lot of years on doing genealogy, and then DNA comes along. They’re self-taught, they’ve learned amazingly, really, how to do all of this, where I’ve come in the other way. And, there’s a difference, I feel like, just in simple things that you’re taught in school, like the scientific method. There’s a set of procedures that you follow, and when you get to the end, the end is hardly ever an answer. It’s always a hypothesis. It’s always this is what we think based on our current data, but there’s always room for more data. And, I think that’s really helped me in my career to approach it this way, instead of, oh look! Here’s some information, that must be the answer. Which is a common fault in genealogy research in general, but I think especially with genetic genealogy.
Laura: I think that’s an excellent point, so all those protocols and rules that need to be applied maybe haven’t matured yet.
Laura: So you’ll be teaching a class. A workshop on that at the end of the conference. It sounds like it’s hands on. What will people be doing?
Diahan: Right. So, I’ve evolved as a teacher, of course, over the last 18 years, and I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter how long you sit in a classroom and watch someone teach, and even if you’re taking notes, you don’t really get it until you’re doing it. And also, what I’ve found is that when you go home to try and do it, you’re by yourself. And there’s no one to answer your questions. You thought you understood, and maybe you did, but when it comes to actually applying it, you’re like, “I can’t remember what she said.” So, by putting that in the hands of each student in the class, while I’m still there, it helps everyone to work through most of the basic steps that they’ll need to use on their own later.
Laura: So, you’re really in an interesting field. How do you balance ethical questions? Things like the right to privacy versus the law enforcement’s right to protect public safety?
Diahan: This is huge, and I could talk for four hours on it. It is a balance like every other technology, and I’ve tried to think in my own mind. A lot of my hesitation about entering law enforcement and this industry is because I’m hung up on these questions, and I don’t feel like I know enough myself with enough confidence that I want to jump in and move forward, which is why I haven’t taken on any casework with law enforcement. I’ve stayed in the education business. I haven’t gone there yet, not that I won’t ever, but again, I’m not certain exactly where I fall on all of the myriad of issues, especially the ethical issues. I think today, especially with the announcement of the DOJ, it goes a long way to let us see what’s acceptable and I’ve also talked extensively with a lot of the California departments who have written out their own MOUs, which has been fantastic, and I think a lot more departments need to sit down and say, “This is what we will and won’t allow.”
Laura: They’ve been very progressive in that area.
Diahan: Absolutely, but that’s what needs to happen! I love it! It makes me excited. It makes me feel like, “Ok, I can be a part of this. I can be a part of a system. I can be a part of a plan. I can be a part of a well thought out process.” Because that’s my scientific training. I want to know exactly what’s allowed and what’s not allowed and I want those parameters to be set before I jump in and try for a lot of reasons. But, I think it has a lot to do with where we’re comfortable spending our privacy. Just like in every other aspect, like cellphone data, for example. I think that’s very similar in that we would all be a lot safer if our cellphone data was always available for law enforcement to look at. We would learn a lot and really stop a lot of crime. And similarly, if everyone had their DNA tested, things would be a lot easier, but there’s give and take, but I’m excited that I see a path and that I think we can come to a really good arrangement and a really good balance between personal privacy and stopping the bad guy.
Laura: You’re right. We have to answer that in every area of our lives, so it’s not surprising in that way. Let’s talk about maybe one of the cases that you’ve been working on. Is there a case that you’ve solved that you’re able to talk about at all or an interesting challenge that you’ve faced in the work that you’ve been doing the past five years?
Diahan: So, I work with a lot of different kinds of people. The bulk of my work is with people who are genealogists, and they want to use DNA to find their 3rd great-grandfather or whatever, which it can do, which is pretty amazing. But what I’m finding more and more often is that these people that are seeking one goal are learning through DNA about this entirely different set of family clans. For example, I was speaking just last month at the Crimes Against Children conference, and one of the people in my class came up to me after and was like, “oh, my husband just recently had his DNA test done, and we have this cousin that we can’t figure out. Would you look at it?” I said, “sure of course.” And of course, when you have a really close cousin that you don’t know, it means that there is a mystery in your family that has yet to be explored. That happens more often than not. I’m talking with someone about a particular question, and I say, “Who is this match?” and they say, “You know, I don’t know who that is.” And I’m like, “Well, they’re coming up as close as a first cousin. Most people know all of their first cousins. So if you don’t know this person, there’s something that we need to investigate.” So, more often than not, that’s what’s happening. I’m in the moment having to break news to people that they’re family situation is not what they thought, and that’s been delicate and interesting, and the range of emotions that comes with that for me and for the person that I’m telling is really different in every case.
Laura: How have you handled that, or what advice would you give to somebody who’s thinking about this field and preparing for that?
Diahan: I think number one, and it sounds trite almost, but I tell people all the time, just stick with the golden rule. You can only do for other people what you would want done for yourself. Without any… There can’t be any rules about who you should tell, when you should tell them, what you should tell them. It’s case by case, person by person basis, so if we’re going to issue one rule to help govern, that’s it. You can only do what you what you would want done for you. Number one, I feel like people want to tell someone or they need to tell someone. They need to have a confident. So it’s nice to be that person. I’m so far removed. I don’t know any of them. So, it’s nice to be able to talk and I think that helps people just to talk to someone. And then I always encourage them, “You need to go to the source. So if your parent who perhaps had this other child is still alive, go to them. Don’t talk to your siblings first. Certainly don’t talk to the other parent first. Give your parent or that person who’s closest to the issue a chance to explain themselves and a chance to make things right themselves before you go and talk to other people.”
Laura: That’s good advice. That is a delicate situation, and I’m sure that happens quite a bit. So, how have you liked being an entrepreneur? That’s brand new.
Diahan: I kind of hated it. I feel like all those successful entrepreneurs that you hear from are like, “Oh, I had lemonade stands when I was five.” Yeah, no, not me.
Laura: It’s much more work than people tell you.
Diahan: It is and there’s so much more uncertainty, and to be honest, I couldn’t do it without my husband. He’s so supportive and he’s my best cheerleader and he has a great job, which means if I fail, we’ll still have food, and we’ll still have a house, and the kids can still play soccer. So, it’s such a huge blessing. So many people have asked me how they can get into the industry, and my answer is marry an awesome person. That’s my number one piece of advice, because it’s really hard. There’s so many decisions that have to be made, and I don’t love making decisions. I’d kind of love somebody to swoop in and say, “Just do this,” and I’d be like, “Sweet! I’m in.” But that’s not the way it works. So you have to make a lot of decisions, but I’ve had a couple of opportunities recently to give up my entrepreneurial life and to work for a real company – companies that I’ve believed in and really like, and I thought as soon as that day came along, I’d just jump ship and become part of the workforce again, and didn’t. So, maybe it’s growing on me.
Laura: It might be! Besides the insecurity, there are a lot of pluses.
Diahan: So many pluses. I don’t think I could give it up now and go back to a real job. There’s just so much flexibility, and I can make all of the decisions, which means I get to do whatever I want, and I can say, “You know what, I’m not comfortable with this right now. I’m not going to do that,” instead of a boss saying, “that’s what we’re doing. You’re getting in.” I would have hated that, so I think I said that I hated it, but I think that I might actually love it.
Laura: And the biggest challenges may turn into the biggest opportunities, and when you get past that, it’s interesting how it all works. What’s next for you?
Diahan: I have this really great idea for this really great product that I think will change the way people do things. Because right now, there’s a lot of really great books out there about genetic genealogy and even about forensic genealogy, but just like sitting there and watching a lecture, you can only take so much about what’s written about other cases or about methodology, because every case is different, and you’re going to come to that juncture where you’re like, “This isn’t in the book.” And I feel like there’s a way to address that in a more direct way. To just make a product, like probably a video course or something that allows you to be more customized. Just as there isn’t one path to an answer, there aren’t an infinite number of paths either, so I feel like with all the experience I’ve had, and all the people that I’ve helped, I’ve identified probably at least 80% of the paths that can be taken, and I can help people not just understand how it’s done, but to take their own case, be it law enforcement or a genealogist that wants to find their 2nd great-grandfather, if you start here, I can teach you how to get there. So, I’m excited. I’ve started work on it, so that’s next for sure. Also, I really want to create a program of education for children. I feel like a lot of the talk, especially recently with mass school shootings especially (the one in Florida hit close to home for us) have made me think, “How can we prevent this at it’s core?” I know there’s all sorts of political jargon going around these issues, but for me, I think if each child at say 9 years old understands two things: who am I genetically (like how does my DNA reflect who I am? What can my DNA tell me about me?) and who is my family (who are my parents? Who are my grandparents? What are their stories?). Those two things, research has shown if kids know these things about themselves, they’re more likely to be engaged with their family. They’re more likely to be engaged with their peers. They’re more likely to be engaged with society. And, that means they’re less likely to commit crime. I really believe in this idea that if we can get a fun, hands on, interactive, innovative program to children that we can literally change the way they see themselves and their connection to the world around them.
Laura: They are so open and interested, so it’s a great time to start. That sounds wonderful. Anything else about your work that we haven’t covered that you really want this audience to know about?
Diahan: I think number one is this works. Genetic genealogy works, and it works in genealogy and it works in law enforcement at times when nothing else does, and that makes it uniquely powerful. With any tool that is uniquely powerful, there comes great responsibility, and I think we can’t lose the awe of that, or lose the impact of that, and we’re so at the beginning we have no idea where this is really going and how much this will really impact our societies, so we have to be careful about how fast we move ahead so that we’re not running in the wrong direction.
Laura: Those are powerful words. I don’t think you could have said it better. I think there’s a lot of talk at this symposium and it will just continue. Thanks Diahan, we really appreciate you coming in and we hope you keep coming back!
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