Dr Kathryn “Kathy” Johnston is an educator and researcher in the genetic genealogy community. When she is not traveling the world, she studies her ancestral mtDNA lineage and ancient X chromosome DNA segments.

Kathy with her piranha

Kathy with her piranha

Question: Please tell me about yourself. What do you do for a living? What are your other hobbies and interests apart from genealogy?

Answer: I retired in 2012 after spending >30 years practicing dermatology in Redondo Beach and Torrance, California. I stopped working to be free to spend more time with family and to travel the world. I still have many countries left on my bucket list. My husband is reluctant to travel with me after I led him into a revolution in Egypt, an encounter with (not one but two) black mambas in Africa, and a storm in the Southern Ocean that damaged a National Geographic ship.

I used to ride horses a lot but now I prefer riding camels in distant lands. In my next life I want to come back as an anthropologist. I was absolutely fascinated by the indigenous Warlpiri People in Australia. I would love to study their X chromosomes.

I am blessed with four children and 5 grandchildren. They all have diverse interests but so far there are no genealogists in the mix. My oldest daughter is an infectious disease specialist. My son is a helicopter pilot. I have a daughter who is an artist and budding carpenter. The youngest daughter is still a college student with a degree in environmental studies but soon to become a registered nurse.

Question: What brought you to genealogy? What is your favorite part?

Answer: Genealogy is something in your genes. You either like it or you don’t. I had an uncle who did much of the ground work. I think those of us who do it love to play detective and to discover connections that nobody else knows about. New discoveries seem to give us a rush. Those of us with ancestors who were early pioneers seem to be particularly afflicted with this passion to be explorers even if most of the inquiries involve sitting at computers these days. I have to pull myself away from the Internet to do stretching exercises on the beach with other yoga enthusiasts.

Question: How did you become involved in genetic genealogy?

Answer: Genetic genealogy was just something I stumbled upon when surfing the Internet. I will have to credit Ann Turner with sparking my interest. My parents were in their 90’s and I felt it was about time I got their DNA submitted to SMGF (Sorensen Molecular Genealogy Foundation) in 2004. 10 years after my father past away, I was able to revive a DNA specimen submitted by him to Family Tree DNA so that we could add an autosomal test to the Y-DNA and full mitochondrial tests already ordered.

The need for consumer genetic testing standards has been a topic for years now. To what extent do you think government regulation is needed? Do you feel that the responsibility for consumer education lies with the testing companies, the citizen science community, or the consumer?

You asked about the regulation of direct-to-consumer tests. That is a tricky question because too much government oversight could be disastrous. We are finding though, when there is no government oversight at all, then quality control is adversely affected. I am not so much worried about the accuracy of the raw data itself as I am about the interpretations by lab personnel. It is an evolving science. Education rather than regulation is the key here but I do wish we could encourage better, more up-to-date laboratory algorithms. When companies fail to keep up with the latest research and needs, then maybe there should be some sort of pressure from the community, or as a last resort from government, to make sure that minimum standards are met. The credibility of our hobby is at stake.

Question: Do you feel that the responsibility for consumer education lies with the testing companies, the citizen science community, or the consumer?

Answer: Everyone must get involved in consumer education and citizen science. My motto has always been “see one, do one, teach one.” We all stumble at first, but ultimately anybody can become a teacher to some degree. The best way to learn about changes in DNA over time is to study it in our own families and cousins. You are never too old to learn about genetics, especially when it affects each of us personally.

Question: What DNA tests have you taken?

Answer: I have ordered tests from all the major U.S. companies, Family Tree DNA, SMGF, 23andMe, National Geographic and AncestryDNA. All have had advantages.

Question: Have you tested your family?

Answer: I have not tested any children, but I have tried to get as many adult family members tested as possible. It is most important to get the oldest individuals tested first.

Question: Have your or your family’s test results ever been a surprise?

Answer: If you wait long enough, sooner or later everyone will encounter some sort of surprise in your family often coming from an autosomal DNA match. In my case, I was informed that a cousin had given up a baby for adoption. None of us knew about her. This happened during the Korean War. The father of the adoptee was a soldier who was killed in action and I assume that his sweetheart couldn’t afford to keep the baby and work at the same time. We also know that there was a tremendous stigma attached to a woman who had a baby born out of wedlock, hence the secrecy. The birth certificate listed the mother’s unmarried surname so it only took a few hours for me to figure out the relationship. When determining unknown parentage in a cousin situation, I often recommend using the mnemonic, D.N.A., Dates, Names and Addresses (or Ancestral locations). You can usually figure out the connection when there is a close relationship.

Question: Has genetic genealogy helped you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?

Answer: I often find I can break through brick walls with DNA. I spent many years trying to locate my Pembrokes of “Pembroke Square in England.” According to family tradition, our Pembrooks descended from the Herberts, the famous Earls of Pembroke through an illegitimate line. However, I was brick walled in the United States at John Pembroke, who claimed to be an English ship captain. After three male Pembroke (Pembrook) descendants did their Y-DNA tests I realized I was not going to find him in England. The Y haplogroup turned out to be Q with the M3 mutation in all of them. Rebekah, as a Q expert yourself, you know what that means. His male line would have been in the Americas for thousands of years. These Pembrokes were unlikely to be found in England at all. None of my family members has substantial Native American in their autosomal test results, because the Indian ancestor was so far in the past, but I have a cousin who shows a nice sized Native-associated HIR (half-identical region) on a chromosome. This segment could provide evidence if only we could trace it back in time to the Mohawk River valley in New York. I have often wondered if there are some yet unknown SNP variants (mutations) that cause slender, hairless legs in my family members that could have come from those First Nations ancestors. Much still remains to be discovered.

Question: Do you have advice for someone starting out in genealogy or genetic genealogy DNA? What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?

Answer: I think the future of genetic genealogy is very bright. People still have to be cognizant of privacy issues and make sure there is informed consent when asking a relative to test. My advice is to get permission before uploading familial DNA to a third party site. It is also important to spell out the limitations particularly when dealing with biogeographical analysis.

I will be helping to lead free roundtable discussions during the Southern California Genealogical Society’s Jamboree, Friday morning, June 3, in Burbank, California. Continuing education is the key to success for this trailblazing and ever-changing hobby called Genetic Genealogy.