Thursday, March 28, 2019

Science Cafe NH - A Conversation about DNA and Forensic Genealogy

Panelists at the Science Cafe event, March 27th, in Concord, NH
Left to right, Buzz Scherr, Kim Rumrill, and Beth Wilkes

Every month there are several Science Cafe events around the state of New Hampshire.  Although I have been reading Dave Brooks as "The Granite Geek" in his science column in the Concord Monitor, I hadn't paid attention to these gatherings. Then I saw this event on Facebook for the March 27th event in Concord for "How Forensic Genealogy is Cracking Decades Old Cold Cases" and I jumped at the chance to attend.  Vincent, the science buff (and MIT graduate) was interested in the topic, too.

Vincent and I arrived just in time to grab the last seats at a table at Makris restaurant, where the Science Cafe is now meeting every fourth Wednesday of the month. After we were seated, a few more chairs were brought out and squeezed into corners, and a half dozen people stood along the walls, and about 15 people were turned away.  According to Dave Brooks, who was the moderator for this night's panel discussion, said that he had never anticipated such a large crowd. There were over 90 in this dining room.

Forensic DNA, as well as DNA in general, has made genealogy and genealogy websites very popular in the last few years.  The constant commercials on TV for DNA testing, as well as several very infamous crime cases on the news media have made DNA intriguing to the general public. This is probably why so many people turned up for this particular Science Cafe event.  However, most of the general public still doesn't understand how DNA works, and how the ethics of these cases has changed crime fighting and privacy issues.

Since this was a "Science Cafe", the panel members were not genealogists, even though the word "genealogy" was prominent in the title of the event.  Milli Knudsen, who was the forensic genealogist for the New Hampshire state police on the Bear Brook case, or other forensic genealogists, were not on this panel. The panelists chosen for this night were Buzz Scherr, from the UNH School of Law, an expert on genetic laws and privacy (he penned last year's legislation for privacy which passed by 80% on the NH ballot); Kimberly Rumrill, a criminalist with the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory; and Beth Wilkes, a professor of genetics at NHTI.

The questions posed from the audience to the panel were very interesting, and they also showed that members of the audience had varying degrees of knowledge on the subject of DNA.  The very first question posed was from an audience member who wanted to know the ethics of Ancestry selling his DNA to insurance companies (answer: they are not selling his information to insurance companies).  The second question was about CRISPR and gene editing, a more advanced topic.  Another audience member had a question about the Bear Brook mystery (for people outside of New Hampshire - this was a cold case about several bodies found buried in steel barrels on the grounds of Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown.  The case was solved using DNA and genealogy - see the link below for a podcast about the case, or Google "Bear Brook Case" for news stories).

One audience member wanted to know if our DNA is 99.9% identical (between any two humans), how could the differences point out a suspect in a crime case?  This is where the panel could have used an actual forensic genealogist.  Although the panelists explained how certain markers are examined for mutations and differences in the code, they didn't know which commercial DNA companies (Ancestry, 23andMe, GEDmatch were mentioned) used Y or mtDNA (none of them, only FamilyTreeDNA does the paternal or maternal testing).  They didn't know how to explain triangulation, or centimorgans, DNA Painter, Ancestry Thrulines, or any of the other methods genealogists use to find family members (cousin connections).  Genealogists were mentioned, especially Parabon Nano-Labs in the context of being part of the team to help solve the crimes.

The panel was excellent at explaining the ethical problems in criminal cases, and in explaining the science of genes, chromosomes, phenotyping, etc.  Vincent, although he was an MIT graduate, was glad he had already learned about genetic DNA at RootsTech, the Southern California Genealogy Society Jamboree, NERGC, and from genealogy speakers like Judy Russell and Blaine Bettinger.  Although this is a science topic, it crosses over into law, ethics, government and other disciplines.

Vincent and I were intrigued enough by this event to put some of the other Science Cafe, NH programs on our calendar.  There are Science Cafe events in Manchester (SEE Science Center's Science on Tap), Portsmouth, Nashua, Holderness (hosted by the Squam Lake Association), and Lebanon (hosted by Dartmouth College).  The Nashua Science Cafe is held at the Riverwalk Cafe at 6pm on the second Wednesday of each month.  The Concord Science Cafe is held at Makris Lobster and Steak Restaurant at 6pm on the fourth Wednesday of the month.  Dave Brooks joked that per capita, New Hampshire has more Science Cafe's than any other state.  Considering that we are such a tiny state with a tiny population, maybe he is right!

Look for this show on Concord TV in a week or two (also will air in several other communities in New Hampshire and nation wide) 

If you are interested in DNA and genetic genealogy, don't forget that in two weeks the New England Regional Genealogy Conference (NERGC 2019) will be in Manchester, New Hampshire April 3 - 6, 2019 at the Double Tree Hotel on Elm Street  .  Genetic DNA is so popular right now, that Blaine Bettinger's pre conference DNA day on Wednesday April 3rd has sold out.  You can still follow the DNA track of workshops, lectures and presentations on April 4, 5, and 6 (attend all three days, or just one or two days).  See the conference brochure with a schedule of all the events, including DNA and genetic genealogy at this link: 

Science Cafe, NH on Facebook

The Science Cafe, NH website 

New Hampshire Public Radio's podcast on the Bear Brook Cold Case, solved using forensic genealogy: 

NERGC 2019 (New England Regional Genealogy Conference April 3-6)


Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "Science Cafe NH - A Conversation about DNA and Forensic Genealogy", Nutfield Genealogy, posted 28 March 2019, ( accessed [access date]).

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