Like many of my generation, I managed to make it through my small town high school without even hearing the acronym DNA. I did take biology in tenth grade where my energy was spent memorizing such useful minutiae as the mouth parts of the grasshopper and the names of obscure African parasites. Then, by some combination of an adventurous spirit and dumb luck, I found myself, in the spring of 1963, in a beginning biology lecture by Dr. Sumner Richman at Lawrence College (now University) in Appleton, Wisconsin.
I had arrived at college with a vague notion of majoring in psychology perhaps even becoming a psychiatrist. But, on that beautiful spring day, Dr. Richman stood in the front of the lecture hall in his white lab coat and, with only the aid of a piece of chalk, an ancient blackboard and his typical exuberance, focused my life. Bounding up and down in front of the board, he produced a series of diagrams to explain how DNA, a huge, simple, elegant, magnificent, incredible molecule I had never even heard of before, encodes, utilizes, and passes on with amazing accuracy, the information that directs every process in every living cell. As I walked back to my dorm room, I was awash in two miracles--one, this miracle of DNA, the other, the miracle that scientists could actually know with such precision what was going on in a minuscule living cell. By the time I arrived at my room, I had decided that I was going to be where that kind of action was.
In 1966, I was graduated with a degree in chemistry and biology. In 1972, I received a PhD in biology (in the field of neurobiology) from Purdue University and from there went on to a post doc at UCLA. Eventually, however, family needs precluded a full time career in research biology. While looking around for a way to put my education to work in a productive way that was compatible with my family responsibilities, I chanced on an ad for a teaching position in biology. Before I knew it, I was teaching tenth grade biology in a large high school in southern California. I was happily surprised to find that I loved teaching and my students as much as I loved research. Though I never fully realized my early ambitions to further unravel the secrets of the cell, life has been good and my study of biology was indeed a major defining element. I take tremendous pride in the accomplishments of my students!
In 1999, I retired from teaching. From early childhood, I had been fascinated by an old family tale that my gggrandfather, Harvey Alexander Kelley, had changed his name from Dorsey to Kelley shortly after the Civil War and, at the same time, left Walhalla, South Carolina and moved to Cumberland County, Tennessee. Over the years, I had collected bits of information to support this tale but had no real proof. Having followed the development of DNA profiling for forensics and medical science with great interest, I began to think about the possibility of using the same techniques for leaping over some of the brick walls of genealogical research. It didn't take long to find out that my ideas were far from original. I first heard of the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Project in 2001. A quick "google" for DNA and genealogy, turned up the then new company Family Tree DNA. By fall 2001, I had tracked down a descendent of the Dorsey family I thought was my gggrandfather's family and he had agreed to join two of my cousins in a small project at Family Tree DNA. Details of that project can be found at http://www.contexo.info/DorseyDNA/HarveyKelley.htm.
In the process of learning about DNA testing for genealogy, I subscribed to the Genealogy-DNA email list at http://lists.rootsweb.com/index/other/Miscellaneous/GENEALOGY-DNA.html. There I found an eclectic collection of enthusiastic list members who ranged from professionals in the field of molecular biology to individuals who had not taken a biology class since tenth grade (not to mention those who reached my teacher heart with "I wish I had paid more attention in biology!") I began to realize that more and more people were going to find this new technique for genealogy appealing. I was especially concerned that a general lack of knowledge about DNA and DNA testing would cause some people to form unrealistic expectations, some to reject it out of hand and others to be scared away from a potentially powerful tool. This website is an effort to address those concerns. My goal here has been an introductory/refresher course in fundamentals of DNA and cell biology with a bit about some of the principles and techniques that underlie the use of DNA testing for genealogy. Others have provided a plethora of information about the interpretation of results and I have no immediate plans to expand in that direction.
The links bars are arranged in a logical progression. To follow the whole "course" just click through the pages from left to right. If you have a specific interest and know what you are looking for, just jump right in anywhere.
Though designed for the genealogist with a limited science background, site statistics suggest it attracts a large number of students as well. I hope this site will be useful to all who land here by whatever referral. I wish you each well and hope for success in every endeavor that has brought you here.
Nancy V. Custer, Ph.D.
The Sea Ranch, California
March 30, 2004
updated July 2, 2017
In addition to thanking Dr. Richman for the inspiration of his lecture so many years ago, I also thank my incredibly patient graduate studies advisor Dr. William Pak of Purdue University and Dr. Dean Bok of UCLA who so graciously extended the privileges of his lab so that I could complete my degree when my husband was transferred to California. To both of you, thank you for further inspiration, for instruction, for having faith in me even when I didn't, and most importantly for setting standards of professional and personal excellence that have enriched my life and hopefully the lives of my students. I thank my beloved friends and colleagues at Valley High School in Santa Ana, CA for their friendship and their sharing of ideas for effective teaching. Finally, I thank my husband Walt Custer, the benefactor of this site, for his love, generosity, encouragement, suggestions and most of all companionship over these many years.