Top 5 (and first 5) Tasks for atDNA Results

You’ve got your DNA test results back from Ancestry, FamilyTreeDNA, MyHeritage, 23&Me. You’ve looked at your ethnicity results and laughed. Now you know why you like guac so much, and why you love to the polka. And now you have a reason why you like cold weather much more than hot.

Or, the disappointment comes. Is that it? You’re faced with the reality that you’re exactly who you always thought you were. Nothing exotic in your past, but plain old, boring European.

Take heart, fearless test takers, there’s more to your results than “who are my people?” Those cousin matches are the keys to breaking through brick walls, uncovering new stories, meeting great people who love what you love, and shoring up what you always thought was true.

My husband is a data analyst at a large bank. I’m not actually sure that I can tell you exactly what he does everyday. It’s that kind of job. Truly, I try to pay attention when we chat over dinner. But, the acronyms are hard to keep track of! Whole conversations can take place without actually saying any English words. Amazing. But, in spite of the technical nature of his job, there are valuable lessons interspersed in there about data collection and data management.

The next tips will create a foundation of data analysis. This foundation will help with almost every other tool out there – Gedmatch utilities, DNA painter, visual phasing, GenomeMatePro, and DNAGedcom.

Grab a cup of your favorite beverage and get to work.

You’re going to start data analysis, phase 1: data collection.

Work your paper tree your 5th great grandparents. Then, work forwards.

Why 5th? That’s a far as your test results will go accurately. You should be very skeptical of matches further than that without good cause. Matches less than 10 cMs (centimorgans – a measurement of share DNA. The higher the # the closer the match in most cases, with notable exceptions) are most often false positives.

If you can’t get to your 5th greatgrandparents, awesome. You have your first DNA project. Congratulations.

But, you can get to you 2x great grandparents. That’s good too! Sit with those 2x’s and find all of their adult children, who they married and all of their children. Find those children and who they married and their children. Do it all until you reach about 1940. Yep, that’s a lot of work. Do it over and over again.

It will pay off. I can’t tell you how often, I’ve identified a match simply because I’ve worked my tree forward and recognize surnames and locations. It’s not always helpful to just know the surnames of your direct ancestors. Know all those associated families. It’s the FAN club for DNA. Sons-in-law and daughters-in-law and grandkids and great grandkids.

Identify your DNA matches, 3rd Cousin and Closer. 

You don’t need a name or an exact relationship. Just gather all the information you can.

Think about it this way. You have a woman in your tree whose surname, birthday and birthplace, you know. But, you’ve never found her parents. Think about what do you know about her parents? You know: Her father’s surname, her parents’ likely residence or at least that her mother was at a certain place at a certain time (her birthday!) You know her parents likely ages (over 14 and under 50 for a woman, 80 for a man). That’s a lot of information about people on your tree whose names you don’t know yet.

A match that’s 3rd cousin or closer isn’t a false match. They are your family. You’ll know, how much DNA you share with the match. If you’ve tested your family members, you’ll know how much DNA your match share with each of them (could be more and could be less.) Consider how this match may be related to other 3rd cousin or closer matches. You might label the match, maternal or paternal.

Label those 3rd Cousin or closer matches. 

Every testing company has the ability to take notes about a match. Gedmatch, which isn’t a testing company, doesn’t have that capacity, so try downloading matches to a spreadsheet.

You should include in the notes section items such as: the total centimorgans, the # of segments, the longest segment (if available.) Why? Those 3 factors (total cMs, # of segments and longest segment) are, in order, the 3 top factors in relationship identification.

Next, look at the matches haplogroup and note it, if possible. It can be a guide to include or exclude certain parts of your tree in a search for common relationship.

Check the test takers profile for information. Or the test administrators profile. Does the administrator have more than one kit under their name? Can you tell if the tester or admin has logged in recently or are they a one-time user? Have they included a gedmatch kit #, a personal email, residence?

Every detail is important.

Evaluate their online tree, if applicable. 

How complete is it? What kinds of details are available? Is there supporting documentation? Are there surnames your recognize? Familiar locations? These aren’t confirmations of relationship, just starting off points. Note all possible connections.

With enough information in a match’s very small tree, you might recreate their tree on your own and work the family backwards. See if anything starts to look familiar.

Create Groups. Group close matches together based on who matches whom. 

For example, you have a first cousin match that you can identify has being from your paternal side. It’s a reasonable (but not always accurate) assumption, that any other match that matches you and your paternal 1st cousin, is a paternal-side match.

Create a group for your paternal 1st cousin. Give it a name. Gather the common matches and label them with the group/1st cousin name. Who in this new group matches each other? Who doesn’t match each other?

Since your first cousin shares your common grandparents, subgroups may start to form that might be related to your paternal grandfather and another group to your paternal grandmother. One good match with a great tree, would be all it would take to label a subgroup further.

Here’s an example from my own tree.

This is a male test taker on that matches me.

  • His username gives an alias. It’s too generic to be an email prefix.
  • He has no tree, public or private associated with his test.
  • There’s no information on his profile page.
  • Ancestry notes that he became a member in April and last logged in that same month implying that he took a test for ethnicity only and only looked at his results once.
  • I share 62.8 cMs of DNA on 3 segments.
  • I also know that this match doesn’t match my mother.
  • He matches my sister at 95/5 and my brother at 59/5. He’s a solid PATERNAL match.
  • The match with my sister puts him at 3rd to 4th cousins rather than my estimate of 4th to 6th cousins.
  • He matches my paternal first cousin as well.
  • But, when analyzing other 1st cousin matches, he doesn’t fit into my paternal grandmother’s side matches. He’s likely a match on my paternal grandfather’s side. But, that’s a tentative observation that’s awaiting confirmation.
  • I’ve also noted that I’ve emailed him via Ancestry on a particular date.

That’s a lot of information about one guy that I’ll probably never hear from. Record all of that data. Take advantage of every bit of information. It will likely pay off later.

Why did I pick this match to share with you? I have a brick wall at my paternal line great grandfather. I can’t find any of James Morrissey’s family. See more information about James here. This match may be the key to finding James’ family, and I don’t know who he is. He’s unlikely to ever return my emails. But, I’ll keep my fingers crossed and hope, knowing that I did everything I could.

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DNA – An Intro to Visual Phasing

Visual Phasing: the genetic genealogy phrase that generates fear in the heart of every genealogist.

Yep, I’ve been trying to tackle it. Here’s what I’ve learned, so far.

  1. What’s required in order to start using visual phasing will eliminate many. 3 siblings and uncle/aunt/1st cousin matches on both maternal and paternal sides. If you don’t have 2 siblings, the process is more difficult to an exponent. You may have to commit to finding more testers before you even start the process.
  2. Some have suggested using a Power Point slide for each chromosome. I found that it was too crowded and too confusing. If you like Excel spreadsheets, start there. Much easier. There’s a video link on the page using Excel. It’s great. There’s no audio and the spreadsheet isn’t in English, but if you’re familiar at all with Excel, easy peasy.
  3. The terminology can be confusing if you’re not a genetist. Sue Griffith at has some great tips. Including her image. Keep it handy.  
  4. There’s a lot of data to collect. I’d suggest working only one chromosome at a time. Blaine Bettinger suggests starting with the smaller chromosomes – 20, 21, 22. I agree. But, I’ve found that putting one chromosome per spreadsheet in Excel is helpful.
  5. Testing hypotheses. At some point in the process, you’re going to get very uncomfortable. No worries. This is science and you’re using the scientific method! You’re going to have to make a choice to assign a segment of DNA to a set of grandparents or to one grandparent. Just choose. It’s not the end of the world. If it doesn’t work. Revise your hypothesis and try again. You’ll get it.
  6. Along with #5, you’ll have to be really comfortable making assumptions. Those If/Then statements like, “If brother doesn’t match sister on this segment, then she inherited her DNA from the other set of grandparents.” Go slowly. I had my very logic-minded, data analyst of a husband check my work. So, ask a friend to help.

Remember, if something seems too hard, break it down into smaller pieces. Good luck.


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If you’re searching for an unknown…

As I’ve been working with friends and clients to find lost family members. Whether put up for adoption or adopted themselves. Whether you are a child of a brief relationship. Or the parent of a child of a brief relationship. Whatever the circumstances that have led you to search for someone. I have some advice, if you want to be found.

  1. Get on Social Media. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram. All of them. Post information about you, and your vital stats (you don’t even have to be exact and should still protect you PII.) If you are a parent who is searching, include that in your profile. For example, if you have a child up for adoption, you might put, “I lived in X county in 19??, and am searching for a baby girl/boy who was born mm/dd/yyyy.” Put as much information as you can: your information (birth year, birthplace, heritage information, parents’ surnames and residences, grandparents’ surnames and residences.) Consider including a link to your family tree that you’ve posted online.
  2. If you are a man looking for a child that you suspect was adopted without your knowledge. You should follow #1, and include all of that information as well. Also, consider listing your residence at the time of the physical relationship or pregnancy. Generally, parents still have to be in the same place and the same time to make a baby.
  3. Return to the adoption agency and request information. Leave word there, that you will welcome contact from any inquiries. Leave several means of contact: address, phone, email and next of kin contacts. Keep this up to date.
  4. Take a DNA test. This is sometimes a searchers only option. Leave contact information in your profile. Create a tree on the site, with as many generations back from you as you can. At least to your grandparents.
  5. If you were born in the U.S. to American parents start at Ancestry. It has the largest database of U.S. testers.
  6. If you are European, a recent immigrant or the child of recent immigrants, start at FamilyTreeDNA or My Heritage. Both of these sites seem to have more international testers.
  7. Then Upload that DNA test to Gedmatch and FamilyTreeDNA. Gedmatch is free, but FamilyTree will cost you a few more bucks.
  8. Use those DNA test results! Ignore the admixture/ethnicity results. Really! Go straight to the share ancestor matches. Start with the closest family members. Check out and follow their process. It works.
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Book Review: “The Stranger in My Genes” by Bill Griffeth

It’s a regular source of conversation among genetic genealogy testers: NPEs or Non-Paternal Events. Somehow, someway, a parent on paper is NOT the parent via DNA. ISOGG (International Society of Genetic Genealogists) defines an NPE as: “An event which has caused a break in the link between the surname and the Y-chromosome resulting in a son using a different surname from that of his biological father (eg, illegitmacy, adoption, maternal infidelity).”

Bill Griffeth, a financial news reporter and long-time genealogy hobbyist, took a y-DNA test at a family member’s prompting. He discovered that his father wasn’t his biologically. He recalls his experience in his book, “The Stranger in My Genes: A Memoir.”

Have you ever had a moment in your life, when you thought to yourself, “Things will never be the same again?” For me, I can name two. When my father died and 9/11. When dad died, I remember leaving the hospital and on the drive home I crossed a bridge over the interstate that runs through my city. I vividly remember seeing all of the cars and wondering out loud, “Why are all of these people out, don’t they know that dad just died?” My personal universe was fundamentally different. Then there was 9/11. By the time the plane crashed in the Pennsylvania field, I knew. And over the next few days as the whole of the U. S. stopped working and moving, it was obvious. Life was going to be different. Fundamentally.

For Bill Griffeth, a favor for his cousin, taking a DNA test, fundamentally shifted his identity. His book is an account of the emotional rollercoaster that is an NPE discovery. It is not a textbook on genetic genealogy testing. It’s a recounting of his own journey.

Here’s what I loved about it:

-Bill is a genealogist himself. He mixes his own DNA story with family stories of how traditional paper genealogy research uncovers family secrets as well. Bottomline, DNA testing is not unique in it’s ability to cover what people have tried to hide. Bill makes it clear that his experience is only unique to him.

-His story is paced. The DNA results are the tip of the iceberg in uncovering the story. It’s the beginning and the journey is long, sometimes dark and at times, frightening. Answers never come all at once. This isn’t bad. The slow burn allows a searcher to reconcile themselves to each new bit of information a little at a time. Surely, it would be overwhelming to know everything all a once. And while a searcher is rightly impatient for answers, Bill’s living-in-the-moment style is a valuable model.

-He’s thoughtful about how his discovery effects others. A discovery like Bill’s effects his entire family, family friends and unknown numbers of people that he’s never encountered. His mother, his siblings, extended family, his own children, family friends, and co-workers. And that’s just his family. There’s a biological father, who has parents, siblings, children, friends, and co-workers. He is not living this experience in a vacuum, but in a context of relationships, some of which are very complex. Some require a sensitivity that demands caution and forethought.

-Bill never appears to be “entitled” to his story. Many in the NPE search community communicate their deep, compelling desire to know their birth story as a fundamental right. I confess that I bristle at this. There are always others to consider – their experiences and their feelings. There are right ways and wrong ways to go about finding a birth story. Barreling over people like a Mack truck isn’t it. A searcher may finding themselves having alienated all family including the one they’re trying to discover. Bill appears to be hesitant to discuss his discovery with his mother and I’m sure that would frustrate many other readers. For me, I admired his respect for her and his sensitivity to just how hard the situation must be for her. He’s carrying a big stick of a secret, yet he walks softly.

-Bill avoids the temptation to sensationalize his story to up the drama-quotient. It’s a quiet story.

Overall a great read for those working with DNA testing. Lay people may not find the story compelling and exciting enough.

NOTE: I have not received any payment in any form for my review. I purchased the book from with my own cash!

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