Temple students take DNA tests to learn about their heritage

Some students like to learn about their roots, but others are skeptical of these test kits.

Junior mechanical engineering major Stefanie Beard (right) discovered her long-lost cousin, Bryn Mawr College student Claire Mitchell (left), using a 23andMe ancestry kit. | COURTESY / STEFANIE BEARD

Stefanie and Kristyn Beard were adopted from different orphanages in China. 

Stefanie Beard, a junior mechanical engineering major, grew up debating with her sister which one of them had a higher percentage of Chinese heritage in their DNA.   

To settle the argument, the Beard family decided to do 23andMe genealogy kits together last Christmas. 23andMe is an online company that provides DNA testing through saliva collection, which determines ancestry, genetic traits and predispositions to some diseases.

Stefanie and Kristyn Beard discovered they were 77 percent and 99 percent Chinese, respectively. 

Many Temple University students are taking DNA tests to learn more about themselves and their families. Approximately 26 million Americans sent their DNA, either by spitting or swabbing their mouths, to companies including 23andMe and AncestryDNA in the last five years, according to MIT Technology Review. The companies boomed in popularity in 2018.

Olivia Siegel, a sophomore music therapy major, received a 23andMe health and ancestry kit last December as a gift to learn more about her mother’s family, she said. The results indicated that Siegel, who is half Jewish on her father’s side, is a combined 10.3 percent French and German, and 21.8 percent British. 

“The only ones that really surprised me were that I’m French and German a little bit more,” Siegel said. “I only know of one person who’s German from the family, but he was married in, so that’s why.”

The health report was equally important to Siegel, who has a hemangioma, or benign tumor that is a buildup of blood vessels. The medical condition didn’t appear in her report, Siegel said, causing her to believe it isn’t hereditary.

The ancestry kit from 23andMe costs $99, while the health and ancestry service costs $199. 23andMe also offers a DNA Relatives tool for customers to find people who share similar DNA. 

Stefanie Beard used the tool and discovered Claire Mitchell, who is either her second cousin or her first cousin once removed, she said.

Stefanie Beard said she was adopted from the Huazhou Social Welfare Institution, an orphanage in southern China, three years before Mitchell. Mitchell grew up in Kansas and went to Bryn Mawr College, about 30 minutes from Temple.

“It’s kind of crazy because what are the odds we would go to colleges so close together, even though she’s from so far away?” said Stefanie Beard, who also found she was 13 percent Vietnamese.

Stefanie Beard and Mitchell met in person this semester, and instantly got along, she said. They’ve hung out several times since meeting and spent the Chinese New Year in Chinatown watching the Dragon Parade.

Although DNA tests are becoming increasingly popular, some are skeptical about the tests’ security. Genetic companies have shared DNA information with law enforcement, drug makers and app developers, Axios reported. 

Freshman social work major Suzanne Lindabery is skeptical of these tests. After reading articles about the kits, she doesn’t like the thought of the government having her information, she said. 

“I still don’t like the idea of them having access to my DNA and ancestry and stuff without my consent or awareness at all,” Lindabery added. 

Colleen Boyd, a 2018 philosophy and environmental studies alumna, was worried about the accuracy of DNA tests. She felt better that her results from MyHeritage, an online genealogy platform, didn’t make any “wild claims” about her ancestry, she said.

Boyd and her friend got free MyHeritage DNA tests from FX Networks, an American cable channel, during a 2017 promotion for its Marvel Comics-based show “Legion,” which is about a mutant. The test found Boyd is mainly from Northwestern Europe, which she already assumed. 

“I’ve always been curious because my dad is adopted and I’m not too familiar with his lineage, and my mom supposedly is half-Irish and half-German,” Boyd said.

For Stefanie Beard, DNA tests are worth it for people who want to know more about their heritage.

“I never had the intention of finding any relatives,” she said. “It was a one-in-a-million shot kind of thing.”

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