Donna White-Dropkin

If you go

* What: “Beginning DNA for Genealogy” seminar.

* When: 10 a.m.-noon Saturday, June 23.

* Where: Northgate Library, 278 Northgate Mall Drive.

* Admission: Free; registration not required.

* For more information: 423-643-7785.


A professional genealogist with nearly 20 years experience will explain the new tools of the trade at the Northgate Branch of the Chattanooga Public Library this weekend.

"Beginning DNA for Genealogy" will examine how genome testing can lead to answers about ancestral ethnicity and relationships.

Donna White-Dropkin, who retired as a certified public accountant in 2013 and is working toward professional genealogical certification, says DNA testing is the next frontier in genealogical research.

She dove in when she realized her own research skills "were good getting back to 1850 where everybody is listed in a census, but there are a lot of advanced techniques and research tools you can use to get past that point."

The Chattanooga Public Library agreed to host the free seminar after seeing an increase in library visitors coming to research their genealogy, says Mary Helms, manager of the library's Local History and Genealogy Department.

"It's like if you're at lunch at a table and you start talking about this, someone at the table has probably had their DNA tested and others want to," says Helms.

As a headline in the Feb. 12, 2018, issue of MIT Technology Review heralded: "2017 Was the Year Consumer DNA Testing Blew Up."

The number of people who have had their DNA analyzed with direct-to-consumer genetic genealogy tests more than doubled in 2017 and currently exceeds 12 million, according to industry estimates. And about 1 in 25 people in the country now have access to personal genetic data, said the MIT Technology Review article.

"If you don't work with DNA, in a lot of cases you're kind of out of luck when it comes to breaking through the brick wall of the great-great-grandparents," says White-Dropkin.

DNA is a more advanced technique of tracing family history, but you still need a paper trail that goes with the DNA, she says. Some research may be done by examining courthouse records, deeds and probate records. The paper trail also can include family Bibles, high school yearbooks and newspaper clippings.

White-Dropkin has studied genealogy at Samford Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research conferences in Birmingham, Alabama, and Athens, Georgia, and at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. She is a member of the Association of Professional Genealogists.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Ooltewah is the local branch of the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy. It offers a church-sponsored membership to at no charge to the public, though all research must be done on-site using church computers. The library is open by appointment.

Gloria Smartt, the church library's family history consultant, says DNA is good in that it will tell the region where a person was born, but a person still has to research to know their lineage.

"You start with your parents and your grandparents and just go back," says Smartt. "But I will tell you this, it's a whole lot easier to do that now with our computers."

And DNA testing makes it easier still.

To acquire the DNA, companies including Ancestry, My Heritage and 23andMe require people to spit into a tube and mail it in. Family Tree DNA requires a cheek swab, which may work better for older people who have trouble spitting in the tube, says White-Dropkin. All companies send a return envelope or folder to include the sample and drop it in the mail. Most companies send an email to say they've received the sample. Once it's processed, the sender gets a link to the results to learn his or her ethnicity and matches.

Access to DNA testing and results can run about $69 during a sale. And the sales usually come around the beginning of spring in April, Mother's Day, Father's Day and Christmas, White-Dropkin says.

Some people give DNA genealogy tests as gifts. But most people don't know how to use it to the fullest extent to benefit themselves.

Most people stop with knowing their ethnicity. But a person with a DNA test can also find relatives by seeing how many other people they connect to and how closely they are connected.

"It's the DNA matches that get a genealogist's heart going," says White-Dropkin. "The people that match you, you can research those people and find long-lost cousins."

It was DNA testing and assistance from genealogists that led to the recent arrest of the man known as the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, says White-Dropkin.

He was caught using GEDmatch, a Florida-based website that pools raw genetic profiles that people share publicly. It's the same database where FamilyTree, and related sites upload their raw data. The information is uploaded only if the tester chooses, explains White-Dropkin. And the DNA is still private in that you only see the profile of the people who match you.

You don't see everyone who is on it. You only see if they match you and how they match you. And if you decide you want out of the database, you click out and they can delete everything you put on there, she says.

For most people with concerns about privacy, the concern is that insurance agencies may deny some claims after looking at a person's DNA. A birth mother who didn't want to be found by a child she gave for adoption could also be tracked using the DNA research, says White-Dropkin. And they tell you on the page when you log in that law enforcement may use the database in cases of unsolved crimes.

The DNA tester chooses to upload it.

"It's amazing," says White-Dropkin. "It has really some advanced tools for processing your DNA and looking at your DNA, looking at your matches and comparing them by chromosomes. Or actually looking at the chromosomes to see where you match. Some other companies do that as well, but when you take it to GEDmatch you get more matches because a lot of people upload there."

Following DeAngelo's arrest, GEDmatch co-founder Curtis Rogers said in a statement, "While the database was created for genealogical research, it is important that GEDmatch participants understand the possible uses of their DNA, including information of relatives that have committed crimes or were victims of crimes. If you are concerned about non-genealogical uses of your DNA, you should not upload your DNA to the database and/or you should remove DNA that has already been uploaded."

Contact Yolanda Putman at or 423-757-6431.