Monday, April 13, 2009

SDGS Meeting Summary - Colleen Fitzpatrick on 11 April

I attended the San Diego Genealogical Society meeting on Saturday, 11 April along with about 100 other members and visitors. The speaker was Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD. on two topics - "A Different Kind of DNA Talk" in the 12 noon hour and "The Hand in the Snow" in the 1 p.m. hour. Both were excellent! The summary and Colleen's CV is here. Colleen's web site is at

In the first presentation, Colleen provided the basics of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA) as they relate to genealogy research. As most of us know, the Y-DNA is passed by father-to-son, and therefore it is very useful in tracing a patrilineal line - the classical surname line. The mtDNA is passed from mother to female and male children, but only the daughters can pass it to their children. Therefore, it is useful in tracing the matrilineal line - a mother's mother's mother, etc.

She even answered why mitochondrial DNA is passed only from the female, even though males have it also. The answer is that the unfertilized egg has much more mass, and mtDNA matter, than the male sperm, which is essentially destroyed in the act of fertilization.

Colleen shared many basic lessons about DNA - base pairs, genes, junk DNA, SNPs, STRs, haplogroups, haplotypes, mutations, MRCA, etc. She noted that for a rare surname, a Y-DNA test of 12 markers may be sufficient, but a more common name might require up to a 67-marker test in order to determine a match with another person.

Her final point in this talk was that Geography, History, and DNA are inseparable, and can be used to define genealogical relationships.

The second talk was about "The Hand in the Snow" - a story recently discussed in a Scientific American article here. Colleen shared some of the history of the frozen arm in the Alaskan glacier, and noted that it was found in 1999, and by 2002 the researchers were able to obtain some fingerprints and extract some mtDNA and Y-DNA from the arm. By 2007, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory had ruled out 28 of the 30 persons on the aircraft using fingerprint and DNA evidence.

Colleen searched for male siblings, uncles and cousins of Francis Van Zandt (1911-1948) but struck out. She found him in the 1920 census, and found the family in the 1910 census. A brother's marriage record named his mother as Margaret Conway of Timerick, Ireland (which was a misspelling of Limerick). She looked for Margaret's siblings, since there was a Van Zandt story of five siblings coming to America. Colleen turned to Irish records, and finally found Margaret, with the known siblings, in the 1881 UK Census in Limerick, children of John and Ellen (Drum) Conway. The challenge then was to find living descendants of Ellen Drum that might match up mtDNA to Frank Van Zandt. After many calls, she contacted Maurice Conway in Askeaton, County Limerick, who happened to be the cemetery keeper in Askeaton, where John and Ellen Conway were buried. Maurice's matrilineal ancestry was to a Drum female five generations back, a sister of Ellen Drum, and Maurice's mtDNA matched Frank Van Zandt's! In the process, they also found that Maurice Conway had a Y-DNA match with a Conway male in New York known to be a descendant of John and Ellen (Drum) Conway. I hope I got all of that right!!

The audience got a little misty-eyed as Colleen described going to Limerick to meet Maurice Conway, view the Askeaton graveyard, and participate in a traditional Irish wake for the Conway's long-lost and now-found American cousin, Francis Van Zandt.

Why does Colleen do this work to find the person with unknown remains? There are 869 cases open from the Korean War. She said that it was to ensure that there no OLD unknown soldiers.

This combination of an informational talk and a case study, illustrating the research techniques, is perfect for the SDGS two-part meeting. Colleen was an excellent presenter, and kept the audience interested throughout.

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