family history

"Dear Brianne...I was adopted from the US to Europe. Can you help me?"

"Dear Brianne...I was adopted from the US to Europe. Can you help me?"

A few of the sections from my book with co-author Shannon Combs-Bennett addresses special issues related to international/intercountry adoptions.

Most of the book is US-centric (where Shannon and I live and have most of our experience). Some of the issues we address in the book are not country-specific, though, like issues we address related to the emotional aspects and moving forward with communication.

As DNA testing options expand, the use of DNA testing for the purpose of family searches will grow as well.

I recently received an email from someone living in Europe who was adopted out of the US state of New York. Here is how I addressed his question.

DNA testing and family medical history: a short intro for genealogists

DNA testing and family medical history: a short intro for genealogists

Genealogists are a creative bunch, and I love to read about the information they discover and record about family. Some genealogists track down death certificates and record the official cause of death for ancestors. Others learn medical history from living relatives and write that down. I quietly applaud when I read about someone finding and saving medical information on ancestors and relatives like this!

As a genetic counselor and genealogist, family medical history will always be an important in my eyes. This information is difficult to retrieve once relatives pass away.  

Telling an adult or minor child they were donor-conceived if they haven't been told yet

Telling an adult or minor child they were donor-conceived if they haven't been told yet

If you are a parent of a child who was conceived with a donor egg or sperm and they do not yet know it, the time to be proactive is now. Consumer DNA tests like 23andMe and AncestryDNA are changing the way people discover their genetic origins, and this new reality has implications for many people, including those who have kept the secret of donor conception hidden from their children.

5 Things to Pay Attention to in your Family History

Some families and its members are more comfortable with sharing medical history information. In other families, it is harder to learn this information. Small family size, less communication about difficult subjects like health and illness, and lack of continued communication over time between relatives can make these challenging. When you have the chance to gather health information from family, what should you focus on?

When you have the chance to gather health information from family, what should you focus on?
  1. Common conditions - Most conditions that people develop are complex, meaning they are caused by a combination of multiple genes, exposures in the environment, lifestyle choices, and aging. We can tease out the genetic factors for some of them and not for others. Look for patterns in your family: Does high cholesterol run in your family? Heart attacks? Have similar cancers popped up in multiple generations or in a group of siblings, for example?

  2. Rare diseases - When we look at three or four generations of a family, most families will have at least one member who has a rare disease or has experienced a lengthy, complex medical history. We are finding new genetic causes for these situations every year. However, not everything genetic is also hereditary or a concern for other family members. The information you gather about a rare disease in the family (its name and how the diagnosis was made, for example) can help to later determine if anyone else might be at risk.

  3. Age of onset - The age at onset or diagnosis of a medical condition is often the most value-added piece of information. Your Aunt Sal may have developed breast cancer, but was she age 28 or age 68 when it happened? This can make a big difference to risks for others in the family. Take note of how old a family member was when they experienced a medical crisis or health issue, especially for neurologic, heart, and cancer-related issues.

  4. Ethnicity - Some markers in your DNA can indicate ethnicity, some are associated solely with health risks, and some represent both at the same time. Belonging to a certain ethnic population can place you at higher risk of some conditions, especially if you’ve descended from a small, isolated ethnic group. Examples of this are Old World Amish, Ashkenazi Jewish, and French Canadian populations. Ethnic background alone isn’t a reason to meet with a genetic counselor, but expect it to come up during a discussion of family history.

  5. Young death – “Young death” includes cases of sudden infant death, unexplained accidental deaths in children/young adults, and sudden cardiac events, like a heart attack in a young person. These issues can be seen to run in families, and now, we have some tests available to search for possible genetic causes. If you see this pattern in your family, schedule to meet with a genetic counselor to review your family history, talk about genetic testing options, and identify who is the best person in the family to test first.

Genetic counselors help sort out what conditions might have a stronger genetic component to them and determine if any testing is relevant and available.

Genetic counselors help sort out what conditions might have a stronger genetic component to them and determine if any testing is relevant and available. They also identify what rare diagnoses are of greater or lesser concern to others within a family. To partner with a genetic counselor to make your family medical history useful, reach out through my website, You can also visit and use the “find a genetic counselor” search tool to search for a genetic counselor by area of specialty, hospital system/organization, and more.

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Trail Living Magazine.

Thoughts On Fighting Stigma, and the New Season of "Finding Your Roots" Starting This Fall is the website of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a gentleman of multiple talents and acclaim, whom Wikipedia describes as an "American literary critic, teacher, historian, filmmaker and public intellectual". Getting asked to provide commentary for a blog post for The Root was a proud moment for me as a professional writer.

One of Dr. Gates' readers sent in a question to his website earlier this year, raising concerns about a romantic relationship between cousins. As a writer and a genetic counselor with specialization in genealogy/ancestry, I was happy to provide my professional insight.

The scientific perspective I took on this taboo topic was seen as a bit too compassionate and neutral for some readers. I received some flak but still stand by the response I posted on my blog shortly thereafter.

Apparently I am not the only one getting hate mail for writing publicly about controversial topics. The Internet has made a lot things great possible and easier (like in my own situation, being able to connect with other parents who have a child with Dyspraxia).

Unfortunately, the Internet has also made spreading hate and misinformation easier as well. 

Essentially, the message of my reactionary post was this: stigma is unhelpful and counter-productive. It often punishes those who completely innocent of any wrong-doing (children, for example), those who have no control over a life situation, or are at no fault. Stigma sucks. And haters be warned, just because you can use the Internet to share your thoughts does not mean you are right, or that the rest of us will listen to you.

Whether the original blog post and my response made any impact on those who do stigmatize others regarding the topic of "cousin couple" relationships, I have no idea. But it felt good to do my little part to fight back against those lurking in the corners of the Internet and casting judgment on people they do not know or understand. 

Thank you, readers, for tolerating my rant. Now, back to the reason I began writing this post in the first place! 

Dr. Gates and his team have created an amazing show Finding Your Roots which has received rave reviews over its multiple seasons. The fourth season of FYR is scheduled to air in fall 2017 on PBS (season premier October 3rd).

The show's premise? Genealogists and researchers track the family trees of a series of celebrities (writers, actors, politicians, musicians, and others). After the team has completed its research and compiled the guest's family history in a personalized "Book of Life", Dr. Gates sits down with his guest on camera (typically, two guests per episode). Together, Dr. Gates and his guest journey through the book, flipping the pages and learning the interesting stories uncovered about ancestors and forgotten parts of world history. DNA is a part of each show...but never "enough" for some people like myself!

Have you watched any episodes of Finding Your Roots in the past? Will you watch this season? Perhaps your favorite actor or politician or comedian will be featured this season. Check out the roster here



Good golly, it's time for Raleigh!

I am used to being surrounded by thousands of genetic counselors and physicians at Big Conferences. This week it is time to step out of my comfort zone. I'm EXCITED to experience a sea of thousands of family historians this week at the National Genealogical Society conference. Raleigh, NC, here I come.

What questions will attendees have? What will they find intriguing, exciting, daunting, and concerning? DNA is all the rage these days because...well...EVERYONE HAS IT. Call me biased, but I think it should matter to everyone!