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What a blast!!

DNA — and genealogy in general — came to New York City in a big way this weekend with the big two-day show The Genealogy Event at the Metropolitan Pavilion on 18th Street.

The exhibit hall

And boy was it fun!!

I mean really… where else can you get an entire room full of adults trying to see if they can curl their tongues except in a presentation on DNA??? (It’s genetic, y’know: if you can’t curl your tongue, blame your genes.)

I spoke twice, on Friday and Saturday, to rooms packed with people who listened, asked good questions and even laughed at my corny jokes. (What more can a speaker ask for?)

But what I liked best was the chance to connect one-on-one with lots of people who had lots of questions about DNA testing — what it can do for them, what it can’t do, and what they might be able to learn that way.

Show overview

Okay… let me start with a brief overview of the Event as a whole. It seemed to me to be a great success on a lot of different levels: well-attended, well-organized, well-presented.

Attendance

I’m not privy to the attendance figures, but I’d guess that it was on a par with the size of many of the regional conferences and maybe approaching some of the bigger national conferences. There certainly were hundreds of attendees — I heard rumblings of about 700 either pre-registered or buying tickets at the door — and the exhibit hall always seemed to have lots of folks around when the two lecture areas (seating about 250-300 together) were filled.

So my own sense was it was a success in that respect and I sure hope so — it would mean we’ll be likely to see another show like this in the future.

Organization

It was also very well-organized. Everything moved smoothly, people were directed in and out of the lecture areas on schedule, presentations began and ended on time. About the only criticism I heard from anybody from an organizational standpoint, was that it would have been nice to have a few more tables and chairs in the area of the sandwich shop.

Exhibit hall

There was a really nice variety of vendors ranging from the large to the small, the national (and international) to the very local. Everybody from Ancestry (one of the show sponsors) to the Tourist Office for Flanders-Brussels (did you know that a new museum focusing on the Red Star Shipping Line is due to open in Antwerp in 2013? More than two million people came to America on Red Star ships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and I can’t imagine a better reason to visit Belgium besides Belgian chocolate and Belgian waffles…).

Attendees I spoke with liked the chance to spend time with the vendors, and the vendors I spoke with all said they had a great time meeting the folks who came out to the show.

The presentations

The Genealogy Event had a great line-up of speakers overall. Yeah, so, okay, I put myself in that “great line-up” but I sure was in really good company. Loretto (Lou) Dennis Szucs, Laura Prescott. Ron Arons. Bennett Greenspan. Maureen Taylor. Shellee Morehead. Great New York experts like Terry Koch-Bostic, Maira Liriano of the New York Public Library and Dorothy Doughtery of the National Archives’ New York branch.

The individual talks were limited to 30 minutes, so it was more of an overview of a topic than an in-depth review, but my sense from the attendees was that the approach worked well for the location, and let folks get a taste of more topics than they could have gotten if the presentations had been longer.

DNA at The Genealogy Event

For me, of course, the great fun was sharing my love of genetic genealogy with so many people. My topic was The ABCs of DNA, and, in only 30 minutes, it really was only the ABCs — the basics of the three types of tests most useful for genealogists.

We talked about how YDNA lets you learn more about your paternal line — your father’s father’s father’s line back into time. How mitochondrial DNA lets you learn more about your maternal line — your mother’s mother’s mother’s line back into time. And how autosomal DNA helps you find cousins today to share your research with and, with luck, break down some of your brick walls.

I loved the opportunity the show setting provided to sit down with people afterwards and talk about individual issues.

     • One man needed to know what test he might take to help prove the theory that a specific man was the father of his mother, who had been adopted. (If he and a grandchild of that man’s brother both did autosomal tests, it should nail it down very nicely. They’d be second cousins, and the chances of a solid match at the second cousin level are about 99%.)

     • Another wanted to know if a lock of hair could be tested for DNA. (Probably not. You need the root of the hair, not the shaft, to have any chance to get a decent sample.)

     • A woman wanted to know why her AncestryDNA test showed she was 90% Scandinavian when she had no known Scandinavian ancestors. (We’d all like to know why AncestryDNA’s tests are showing so much Scandinavian…)

But there were two things that kept coming up over and over that I found absolutely fascinating.

First, people are deeply interested in the origins of man. The amount of interest in what we call deep ancestry — when man emerged from Africa and spread out around the world — is just wonderful. And there’s a lot of excitement about what the new National Geographic Geno 2.0 test might be able to tell us about that.

Second, people are sobered by the thought that DNA can tell us and our families about things that somebody somewhere back in our family tree may have tried very hard to hide. I always mention, when I talk about DNA, that a DNA test isn’t the right thing for anybody who can’t handle the idea that it might show an undocumented (or undisclosed) adoption or other non-paternity event.

Most of us, as genealogists, want to know the truth about our families — no matter what the truth may be. But that’s not true of everybody in our families. And we have to keep that in mind when we may excitedly want to share that Uncle Joe turns out not to have been the son of Grandpa Sam after all…

The unwelcome visitor

And speaking of blasts…

The next few days may be … um … a bit exciting here in the mid-Atlantic region as we anticipate a most unwelcome visitor by the name of Sandy. Since I don’t generally write blog posts in advance, and since cell service may be as threatened as power service by this storm, The Legal Genealogist may very well be Missing in Action depending on the behavior of the storm.

See you all as power — both electrical and that exhibited by Mother Nature — may allow.

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