Amy Choate-Nielsen: 30-some years later, genealogy and biology less bewildering

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 7 2014 4:50 p.m. MST

I wish I could retake my failed biology classes. I'd learn a lot more about how biology and genealogy have made me who I am.

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Something happened to me in ninth-grade biology.

I remember dissecting an earthworm. I remember looking at a frog and learning about flower stamens and photosynthesis. But when it came to understanding electrons, protons, nuclei and cytoplasm, it all became a blur.

I made models of cells, tried to memorize the vocabulary and practiced labeling biological diagrams, to no avail. I scored horribly on my tests and ended the class convinced that I didn’t like science — it was boring and I was “bad” at it.

I was terrified to take biology in college, but it was required. I put it off until the second term of my sophomore year and signed up for a class of about 400 students, thinking it had to be easier than I remembered. I was wrong.

I remember sitting somewhere in the middle of a large auditorium 15 years ago as my professor, one of two who taught the class, dimmed the lights and began a lecture on chromosomes.

But that’s about all I remember. I slept and daydreamed and missed class, and then I got sick with mono at the end of the semester and failed the final.

I’m not proud of my performance.

Looking back, I wish I could retake those classes. I wish I could have comprehended the monumental significance of all that I was to learn about chloroplasts, mitochondria and eukaryotes. I wish I never talked myself into believing that I was “bad” at science.

I’ve written plenty of stories about complicated scientific principles over the course of my career, and each time I’ve spoken with those scientists I’ve never felt bored or inept. I’ve been fascinated and enlightened.

No offense to my father, but when it came to family history, I often felt the same way.

As a child growing up, hearing the names of cousins 10 times removed, or great-great-great-great uncles, or ancestors from centuries ago, I often tuned it all out. I never met those people, I had no idea who they were and other than a few “gee whiz” stories passed around the family fireside, I wondered why my family history meant anything of any consequence to me.

I started to think that I didn’t like genealogy. It was boring and I was “bad” at it.

But then some of his stories started to sink in, and I started to speak with genealogists. The more I did, the more fascinated and enlightened I became.

I recently went to a nearby family history center at a meetinghouse for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the aim of just looking around through my ancestors to see what I could learn. Anyone who goes to the center can get free access to premium subscription-only websites such as Ancestry.com. I was intrigued.

As I sat at the computer, a man assigned to the center started helping me. He glanced at the name on my screen and saw the date — 1841 — and the place — Texas — and he excitedly said to me, “Oh, maybe he was in the Civil War. A lot of men born around that time had war experience.”

And then, as he searched, he found a picture, almost immediately, of the same name on an old, grey ledger of a regiment in the Civil War. My next task was to determine that the person was actually my ancestor and not just a man with a similar name and age.

It was a fascinating experience, but more interesting is understanding what exactly all of these people whom I’ve never met mean to me. Yes, they were my ancestors, who led lives with highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies. But I often thought their experiences had nothing to do with me.

That’s where all of those “boring” biology classes come in.

Next time, I’ll tell you how my ancestors' experiences have shaped my very DNA, for better or for worse.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.

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