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Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Courtesy Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak at the Korean War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Smolenyak got her start in genetics-based genealogy working to find next of kin family members for unknown soldiers, which she continues to this day.

Who does she think she is?

by Leslie Trew Magraw
March 02, 2011

What kinds of DNA testing are currently available? And how are they different?

Y-DNA testing

A man's patrilineal ancestry (a father’s father’s father, and down the line) can be traced using the DNA on his Y chromosome. Because the Y chromosome is passed down almost unchanged from father to son, the test results from two men can be compared to determine if they share a common ancestor.

Because only males have Y chromosomes, women who want to determine their direct paternal DNA ancestry can ask someone in their family who shares a common patrilineal ancestry with them – a father, brother, paternal uncle, etc. -- to take a test for them.

Mitochondrial DNA testing

Mothers pass their mitochondrial DNA to all of their children, so women and men alike can have their mitochondrial DNA tested to find out information about their matrilineal ancestry. If there’s not a perfect matrilineal match, this type of testing can be less accurate than Y DNA testing.

Autosomal DNA testing 


As genealogist Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, puts it, this kind of testing is noteworthy because it “frees us from the tyranny of direct gender lines” and can determine the degree of relationship between any two people. The closer the relationship, the more accurate it is. When you find a match, you use conventional genealogy to figure out from which branch of your family tree that cousin might come. 

Resources to help you dig deeper: 

Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (yes, that’s squared), famed genealogist and author of the companion book to NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” series, touches on her own roots as a “genie” and what newbies can do to get started on digging up their own family tree. Check out Megan's genealogical expertise on tonight's episode of Top Chef.

What sparked your interest in genealogy?

I got addicted really early. I was the twisted kid who saved up her allowance to buy death certificates. When everybody else was waiting to turn 16 to get their driver’s license, I just wanted to be old enough to go to the National Archives without an adult.

You had a first career as a management consultant. How did you find your way back to genealogy in your professional life?

I got to the point where I was averaging nine months a year out of the country and living between suitcases. So I did the midlife crisis thing, thinking about what I wanted to do next – which was just about a decade ago – and I decided to just take a leap and have a go at genealogy because it’s always been my first love. And it was just great timing.

What was your first job as a professional genealogist?

My very first gig, believe it or not, was as lead researcher for the PBS series “Ancestors.” It was just a lucky series of events. I had met the producers of the show by accident. And then their lead researcher abruptly left the project, leaving them in the lurch. So they flashed back to meeting me a month earlier and called me up, saying, “Hey, this sounds crazy, but could you come tomorrow?” So I did it.

You’ve done genealogy work for “Who Do You Think You Are?,” “Ancestors” and “Faces of America” to name just a few. What’s it like doing research for TV shows?

I do a ton of research. It’s pedal-to-the-metal. What makes it to air is a tiny fraction of what’s done.
I always knew that I worked really hard on TV shows, but for the last show I worked on [an episode of Top Chef that is airing tonight on Bravo] I clocked it for the first time and discovered that I was averaging 19 ½ hours a day.

They’re going to Ellis Island and have to cook a meal inspired by their heritage and I did the detective work. Being a competition show, I didn’t know who was going to make it to that episode, so I had to way over-research people. And every time somebody with a great story got cut, the producers and I would just wince. They really do make the decisions based on the cooking.

You’ve traced the First Lady’s ancestry. What’s it like looking into celebrity pasts?

One of the most challenging things I do is celebrity research for TV shows because it’s somewhat artificial. Celebrities have layers and layers of protectors. In real life, the first thing you would do is just talk with your family.

Where should regular people get started on their search?

Start with a scavenger hunt at home. Go through your attic and drawers and basement. A lot of us are sitting on tons of family history – little mini-museums – and don’t even know it. Talk to anybody who is even 20 minutes older than you in your family because they’re living libraries and can shave years off your research.

Then you want to turn to software or one of the online family tree programs to help you organize all the stuff that you’re finding. These days most people’s first inclination is to jump online, but I would actually suggest they do a little bit of homework before they do. It’s really easy to go off in the wrong direction if you haven’t talked with grandma or poked around old marriage records, Bible records or diplomas.

How much of what we see on and other sites like it can we trust?

It’s kind of exceptional when you don’t see conflicting data. There can be this echo-chamber effect – especially with somebody who lived a long time ago and has tons of descendents – where so many people merge that data into their trees that it starts to look real because so many people have it. But it’s just a lot of people repeating the same wrong information.

I always wince when I hear that somebody is all excited about genealogy because they jumped online and it only took them two hours to get back to the 1600s. You think: ‘In two hours you proved every one of those parent-to-child links. You’re absolutely sure about that?’

You co-wrote the first book about using DNA trace your roots in 2004. What turned you on to the idea of using genetics to move your genealogical research forward?

It was oddly thanks to the Army that I got into the genetic side of things. I wound up getting a contract with the U.S. Army tracking down families of soldiers who are still unaccounted for from past conflicts [using DNA].

So when the first couple of [DNA-based genealogy] companies launched, I had already been playing with this stuff through my Army work for a year and a half. That’s why I was one of the first in line saying, “Me, me, me!” because I realized how we could play with it.

What are the pros and cons of doing traditional paper-based research vs. DNA-based research?

Some people want to play the either or game. It’s not like that at all. The two are highly complementary. Sometimes DNA can answer questions that a paper trail never is going to answer. And sometimes it just gets you to the finish line faster.

With any genealogical conundrum I face, my brain rattles through all the possibilities. DNA to me is just another possibility – it’s like using another great database. It depends on the situation and what you’re trying to prove. Sometimes DNA’s the best answer. I just do whatever makes the most sense. More often than not the answer’s really a combination of both. You always hope for a paper trail. You always try. But it sure is nice to have DNA.

When should people incorporate genetic testing into their search?

To me it's mostly situation-specific, although it’s not a bad idea to get tested fairly early on because the cost has come down. Now, there are enough people who have gotten tested that you have a decent chance of learning something interesting -- finding some cousins, or discovering that you don’t match most of the people with your name, or you do.

I don’t know if people really appreciate how revolutionary it is that we’re living in the first time in the whole history of mankind that we can peek into our past just by doing a cheek swab. It’s really amazing stuff.