Wednesday 15 October 2014

Two days to BTOP: focus on DNA/genetic genealogy

One of the highlights of this year's Back To Our Past, Ireland's major annual family history and heritage show, is the Genetic Genealogy Ireland (GGI) conference.

It returns to the RDS after last year's highly successful first outing, and sees another exciting 3-day programme of lectures lined up with presenters from Ireland, the UK, the USA and Canada.

Dr Maurice Gleeson, who organises the conference, told Irish Genealogy News that the programme is designed to appeal to the most diverse range of people possible. "There are lectures for the complete beginner; each day starts with an entry-level talk which will help researchers understand the three main types of DNA test, what they can do for your research and how they can help break through brickwalls and dead ends.

"There will also be presentations catering to the more intermediate and advanced levels, but even these are pitched in such a way that beginners will understand most of the lecture; there might be only one or two minutes which are a little bit too technical. Feedback from last year certainly shows these talks were enjoyed by many people who had no prior knowledge of DNA."

The line up of speakers shows a good balance between academia and citizen scientists, the latter being lay researchers who have set up their own DNA projects. Many of these DNA projects are of specific Irish interests and Genetic Genealogy Ireland aims to provide these researchers a platform where they can showcase the incredible work they are doing. So, for example, Paul Burns will be talking about his Byrne/Burns/Beirne surname project, and Brad Larkin will be discussing his research and how surname projects are linking back to the ancient Gaelic annals and Norman lineages.

A balance has also been struck in the lecture programme between the different types of DNA testing. Maurice says that the autosomal DNA test, which has been around for only four years or so, has eclipsed the Y-DNA test in the popularity stakes.

"It's the most relevant for those who have hit a brickwall in their family history paper trail. It connects you with cousins with whom you share a common ancestor going back over the last six or seven generations ie back to the early/mid-1700s, and that can be very useful in Ireland where so many people face a barrier around the 1800s. The more people who do the test, the more individual researchers will be able to leap over these barriers."

Three lectures are focussed on these autosomal DNA tests. On Friday, Emily Aulicino of ISOGG will present 'Who’s Your Cousin? atDNA Knows!', on Saturday, Maurice will be talking about its use in solving adoption mysteries, while on Sunday, Rob Warthen will be giving an account of his personal quest to overcome adoption barriers.

Sunday will also see Dr Tyrone Bowes delivering his lecture on 'Pinpointing your Irish Origin & beyond'. This has proved to be the most popular video from last year's conference on the Genetic Genealogy Ireland YouTube Channel. Nearly 2,500 people have watched it, and a good audience is expected when he delivers this year's presentation, too.

Another important address will be from Dr Spencer Wells from the National Genographic Project. He's been scouring the world for indigenous people with deep roots in one place and asking them for samples of DNA to test, in order to piece together our "big family" genetic tree, and will providing an update on the project in his keynote speech at 3:15pm on Saturday.

Down in the exhibition area, away from the lecture room, the Family Tree DNA stand is likely to be one of the busiest in the Industries Hall over the weekend. It certainly was in 2013!

But Maurice says four times as many volunteers – some of them flying in from the UK or USA – have been rounded up for this year's show, so this should reduce waiting times for those wanting to speak to an expert to discuss the appropriateness of each test for their own family history.

Depending on surname, some lucky visitors will be able to have free DNA tests (see the list of surnames that qualify). Like all things 'free', these tests are not really free; their costs are borne by the surname project administrators.

For those whose surname doesn't win them a free test, Family Tree DNA will be offering 10–20% discounts on all three types of DNA tests during the show.

In summary, then, the GGI conference promises a fascinating and educational lectures programme, a chance to discuss the most suitable type of DNA test for your specific research, discounted or even free tests, and a lot less queueing.