Thursday, November 6, 2014

Soliciting DNA From Strangers

By the second quarter of 2014 there were an estimated 152 million daily active users from the United States and Canada on Facebook. This figure is rapidly approaching the half-way mark of the combined total population of both countries. For such obvious reasons, Facebook can be a genealogist's best friend. As mentioned in previous blogs, for a country so morbidly afraid of identity theft, we are conversely in the forefront of Internet exhibitionism. Our lives to the most intimate daily detail are presented for the world to see on a variety of social media outlets, and the electronic paper trail we leave behind us is profound. And, believe me, this is not a bad thing. I am a firm believer in living a transparent life, and I scoff at those who choose to hide behind the fear of malevolent people presumably peering over their shoulder. And for the desperate genealogist looking to "borrow" a tiny bit of someone's DNA, Facebook is the first place I am going to look.

Although 81-year-old men are not the largest demographic for Facebook, it did not take long to locate one of Paul Aaron Robinson's children online. Paul and Carol (Fedor) Robinson had raised a family of three boys and two girls in Niles, Michigan, but the adult children had scattered to all regions of the country by 2014. Paul Robinson himself had finally bid goodbye to the familiar surroundings of Niles, Michigan, in 2010 and had joined his son Robert "Bobby" Robinson in Smiths Grove, Kentucky.

71-year-old Kenneth Eugene Ryder was easier to track down. Living in Benton Harbor, Michigan, he had his own Facebook profile, although it appeared to be seldom utilized.

One of these two men presumably carried a significant amount of DNA in common with my mother, and by assessing their connection to Brian Ryder and Briana Rieman, I was now on a path of "targeted testing." But how does one ask a stranger for DNA?

Whereas I generally think a phone call is a more personal form of contact compared to the formal and emotionally distant email, it seemed more than likely that I would come across as a lunatic if I called someone out of the blue asking for their DNA. And even if I could get them to listen long enough to hear my reasoning, could I actually get them to understand enough of the science behind DNA to make my request seem valid? I have already indicated that many people who had already tested themselves through a number of DNA companies had very little concept of the interpretation of their results. So if neither of these men had never even heard of autosomal DNA testing, I needed to be able to reasonably explain it to them so that they understood the thinking behind my request.

And the only way that seemed plausible to do so was by email. At least with such a format it would allow both Ken and Bobby the ability to read my message, re-read it, digest it, research it, understand it, and formulate a response. But no matter how you try to slice it and dice it, explaining why they are the person you need DNA from, why you need it from them particularly, what it will tell you, and how the science of DNA analysis can tell you that information is no small feat.

So on 24 February 2014, I sent two emails via Facebook (which kindly asks you for a dollar per message to send to someone you are not currently friends with). One email went to Bobby Robinson, son of Paul Robinson, asking for his father's help in locating my missing grandfather. The other email went to Ken Ryder directly.

"This is going to sound like an awfully odd email, but please bear with me. I am going to ask you a favor, but you need to understand where I am coming from, who I am, and why this is important to me. So it gets a little technical..."

From there the email continued for another nine paragraphs explaining my hunt for my missing maternal grandfather, the science of autosomal DNA testing and how you inherit it from your ancestors, the "numbers game" and the percentages that indicate your relationships via your results, the previous test results obtained from Brian Ryder and Briana Rieman and how their relationship to them makes them candidates to test, and then the begging part.

"I need you/your father to spit in a tube. That simple. I am therefore asking you to be a helpful part of a family detective story. By all means, if this is a bit overwhelming or you have questions, I am free to discuss this by any format in which you are comfortable. This would mean the world to me, and definitely to my mother."

This was followed by every conceivable way to find me, learn about me, contact me, or otherwise quiz me about who the hell I was and why I was begging for personal genetic information.

It took exactly forty-seven minutes for Bobby Robinson to reply.

"Hi Michael, give me a few days or so to present this to my parents here. I will show dad the info on my laptop as soon as I get time to do so, but I WILL present it to him ASAP!"

Twenty-four hours later:

"Dad says he has no problem with your request, just let us know how to proceed."

Frankly, I was unprepared and shockingly excited for such an immediate response. I didn't even have a spare 23andMe test kit to send that quickly (a detail that is no longer a problem, as there is ALWAYS a spare lurking on my desk at all times now). On 6 March 2014, an autosomal DNA test was sent to Paul Robinson in Smiths Grove, Kentucky.

Ken Ryder never responded to my email.

And then all I could do was wait. Again.


  1. What a great story Michael. I guess it just goes to show, it never hurts to ask, the worst they could have said was no. Thanks for sharing that story. No matter how distant or a stretch things may be, sometimes things just work out for the best. Best of luck with your search.

  2. I'm so glad you are updating your blog frequently.. I am glad I didn't discover it until a month or so ago.. and now I am sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for each new entry..

  3. I have often tried sending messages in facebook. the "pay a dollar" option must be new, I have only seen it mentioned once before now. I have always sat back and waited and waited........... hoping the recipient of my message would notice the "other" folder in their facebook messages. Although it seems those who access facebook via smart phone don't see the "other" folder.
    Apart from quite a bit of "hit and miss" message sending I have had great success. I thoroughly agree with your transparency statement Michael.

    1. I have been guilty of never, ever seeing mail in my "Other" folder. So I pay the dollar to get it under their noses ASAP!

  4. I didn't even know about the $1 option until I read this. I had given up on Facebook messaging. This is great. I was able to make contact with a "cousin" in a family branch I hadn't seen since 1978. Thanks.