Howard Wolinsky is a science writer, genealogist, and one of the earliest adopters in the genetic genealogy community. He is an mtDNA HV1b2 and a Y-DNA G2. When he is not authoring books and breaking down genealogical roadblocks, he and his wife travel the world and explore different cultures.
Question: Please tell me about yourself. What do you do for a living?
Answer: I was a health and technology writer for the Chicago Sun-Times for nearly 27 years. I was among the first reporters to cover HIV/AIDS and also to cover the Internet. The paper twice nominated me for the Pulitzer Prize for exposes I did.
I have written three books, one with my wife Judi that was a best-seller. I took a buyout to leave the paper in 2008.
For the past eight years, I have been a freelance medical writer and a journalism professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. This summer Judi and I spent six weeks in the Middle East and South Asia. I was mainly there to teach a journalism workshop for Medill in Pakistan and then we vacationed in Northern India, mainly visiting Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh sites—along with a synagogue in Mumbai. It was a mind-blowing experience.
Question: What are your other hobbies and interests apart from genealogy?
Answer: Hobbies? Travel and photography, I’ve been to a variety of places in Europe, such as Latvia and Lithuania to trace my family roots, along with London (the BBC’s “Coast” show paid my way over to the UK for a feature on my search for my roots; my grandfather Henry Wolinsky aka Hillel Sragan was part of the transmigration from Eastern Europe to Hamburg to the USA). So sometimes, my trips combine my family history and photo interests.
We have met up with some of my DNA matches from FTDNA and 23andMe in London, Dublin, Brussels and Wellington, N.Z. I met a cousin in San Jose, Calif. through 23andMe.
During international Jewish gen conference in Chicago, I organized what we believe was the first DNA cousins reunion. I met such cousins as you, Jill Whitehead (who’ve seen in London and Dublin), Deb Katz and Judy Simon (who I’ve seen in California).
Sometimes, we travel just for fun. Judi and I were remarried at Machu Picchu. Lots of adventures. More to come, I hope.
Question: What brought you to genealogy? What is your favorite part?
Answer: A couple of things. It goes back to my days in Hebrew high school. I skipped a grade in Hebrew school. So I was biding my time until my bar mitzvah. I remember reading the genealogies in Genesis with long lines of this one begatting that one. I wondered if it would be possible track my family in a similar fashion.
My parents’ generation had little interest in the past. They looked ahead, not backward. But my father gave me two clues when I was in high school. He said his father Henry came from Lithuania and that Henry’s original surname was Schrogin. These became incredibly important.
Frankly, Alex Haley and “Roots” inspired me, too, the 1976 book and 1977 TV mini-series.
In 1978, when I was a journalist-in-residence at the University of Michigan, Judi was pregnant. I felt it would be a gift to our child if I researched the family history.
I started by looking at phone books in the Michigan library and using microfiche at the LDS Family History Center outside Detroit.
I brought my Schrogin, or Sragan, family to the early 1700s in Keidan, Lithuania. Just a few years ago, my wife, my son David, sister Faith and I walked where Hillel walked in Keidan.
Question: How did you become involved in genetic genealogy?
Answer: I read an article in a Jewish genealogy publication about FamilyTreeDNA and its vision. It spoke to me though I had no expectations of finding long-lost relations. Back before the 1700s, I wondered where the Sragans and other lines walked before reaching Lithuania, Latvia and Ukraine.
So I signed up. I was an early adopter—kit #65.
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?
I see a split between family history, such as FTDNA, and health applications, such as from 23andMe. I don’t think the government should get involved with family history pursuits. I think the states of California and New York overreached.
The case for medical applications is different. Frankly, I took the 23andMe testing. It was fine. It said I was low risk for heart attack and prostate cancer though. That forecast was wrong. They know some things, but they don’t know what they don’t know. FDA and 23 have been slowly working things out.
I think the companies are responsible for consumer education. Everyone should pitch in.
Question: What DNA tests have you taken?
Answer: Most of them, including several that have disappeared. I participate in several genomic studies relating to my health.
Question: Have you tested your family?
Answer: My wife and one of my cousins. I have tried to test a couple of others to get some answers, but they were concerned about their confidentiality. My brother Gary has joined in the fun, testing his daughter and helping me finance a cousin being tested. Gary has brought a lot to the work and is a serious researcher, who has brought a heavy-duty second set of eyes into play, and is especially interested in Latino angles.
Question: Have your or your family’s test results ever been a surprise?
Answer: Well, finding possible Latino roots was a surprise. Also, we may have some links with the Zacuto family from France and then Spain. Abraham Zacuto was the royal astronomer who introduced Columbus to Isabella and Ferdinand.
Question: Has genetic genealogy helped you break through any of your brick walls or solve a family mystery?
Answer: I am still hopeful.
Question: Do you have advice for someone starting out in genealogy or genetic genealogy DNA?
Answer: Be careful with your money. Be sure you understand what you’re likely to get out of this. I have met too many seniors who don’t understand what they’re buying. Control your expectations.
Question: What do you think the future holds for genetic genealogy?
Answer: The next big thing will be full genomes as the price continues to decline. But there needs to be new methods to handle the deluge of data.