Rootstech Presenter Interview: Dr. Steve Morse

RootsTech 2011, February 10 -12. Salt Lake City

[Editor -This post features an interview with Dr. Stephen Morse, genealogy industry presenter at the upcoming Rootstech conference to be held February 10 to 12, 2011 in Salt Lake City.  Dr. Morse will be presenting three sessions – “One-Step Webpages: A Potpourri of Genealogical Search Tools”;  “Creating One-Step Search Tools” ; and “From DNA to Genetic Genealogy: Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask”.]

Dr. Steve Morse - creator of One Step Genealogy
Dr. Steve Morse

Given your long time background as an academic, an engineer and the father of the Intel 8086 processor, what sparked your interest in genealogy and in particular genetic genealogy?

Genealogy is just a natural curiosity that nearly all of us possess.  My own interest was sparked when a friend suggested that I take a look at the 1920 census, which had just been opened at that time (back in 1992).  I didn’t really know why he wanted me to look at it or what I would find, but I did humor him and drove down to my nearest National Archives branch to check it out (those were the “olden days” before things like census records were put online).  Much to my surprise I found my grandfather in the census.  I suddenly realized that there were public documents out there about my family, which I had never seen.  Right away my obsessive compulsive nature kicked in, and I vowed to uncover every public document about my family that I could.  It didn’t matter whether there was any useful information in those documents or not — it was out there and I had to have a copy of it.  I was hopelessly hooked.

OK, that answer the first part of your question as to what sparked my interest in genealogy.  Now for the genetic genealogy part of your question.  After my website gained in popularity, I started getting invited to conferences to lecture on my site.  I noticed that the hot topic at these conferences was genetic genealogy and I decided to attend some of the lectures to find out what this was all about.  Right away I heard them talking about something called DNA and I was lost.  You see DNA was “invented” after I went to school.  In high-school biology I learned about Mendel and how gene inheritance could be analyzed using truth tables.  And I remember learning that chromosomes had something to do with determining the sex of an offspring.  But that was it — I was never told how genes and chromosomes were related, nor that there even was a relationship.

I decided this couldn’t be that complicated and all I had to do was fill in this gap in my education.  So I did some reading and taught myself the basics.  Then I went back to those lectures and it all made sense.  But I noticed that those around me were as hopelessly lost as I was initially.  That’s when I decided to organize what I learned and how I learned it into a lecture that could help others understand the basics.

You are presenting a session entitled “From DNA to Genetic Genealogy: Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask” .  What prompted you to present on this topic?  Who is your target audience?  (beginner to advanced?)

What prompted me to present this topic is covered in my response to question 1.  The target audience is everyone who wants to understand what the topic is all about.  It certainly includes the beginner who knows he doesn’t understand the topic.  But it also includes the more advanced person who thinks he understands it but often doesn’t.  I’ve had many people come up to me saying that after hearing my lecture it finally all made sense.

Your One-Step Search Tools are highly regarded in the genealogy world.  Can you please explain in a sentence or two what a One-Step Search Tool is and a brief summary of what you will cover in your session on creating one step tools.  Will the layperson be able to create their own one step tool or is this session geared to people with a computer technology background?

To answer the question about what a “One Step” search tool is, I need to tell you where the name came from.  My first popular website was for searching for names in the Ellis Island database.  This was back in 2001, and the Ellis Island Foundation had just put up a website for finding the arriving immigrants.  But their site was very hard to use, and it required many steps to find a person.  I looked at it and realized that I could put up my own search form that searches their data in one step.  So without giving it too much thought, I titled that form “Searching the Ellis Island Database in One Step.”  I didn’t realize that by doing so I’d become branded.  People started referring to my site as the “One Step” website, and all following tools that I put up had to have that “One Step” designation in it.  If I had realized how important that choice of words at the top of my Ellis Island search form was going to be, I  might have gone with my second-choice title — “Searching the Ellis Island Database with Fewer Tears.”  In that case we’d now be talking about the “Fewer Tears” website.

So now I can tell you what a “One Step Search Tool” is — it is any tool that I put up on my so-called One-Step Website.  The “One-Step” part is almost meaningless — it’s just a branding.

One of the tools on my website is for creating your own search application and calling it a “One Step Search Application.”.  That means a search application similar to many of the others that I have on my website.  If you try to read anything more into the meaning of the “One Step” aspect, you’d be making a mistake.  I like to refer to it as a “Search-Application Generator.”

The intended user of my search-application generator is certainly the layperson.  I created the tool because I was getting too many requests from organizations that had large collections of data and wanted me to create a search application for them.  I couldn’t do this for everyone, so I created the tool that lets them do it for themselves.  The talk (and the documentation on my website) shows the listener how to use the tool to effortlessly generate search application.

The person with more of a computer background doesn’t need the tool because he can probably write the code for the search application himself.  But I’ve found that whenever I want to bring up a new application, I often use my own tool because it saves me from repeating all the steps that I’ve done in all the previous search applications that I’ve implemented.

What One-step Search Tools have you created for genetic genealogy and where can people find these tools?

There are a few of them in the DNA section of my one-step website.  They are by no means comprehensive, and the main impetus for my doing them was to give some justification to my DNA lecture.  You see, people know me as the One-Step fellow, and they understand why I would be giving lectures on such topics as immigration records and census records.  But unless I had some DNA tools on my site, they wouldn’t understand why I was qualified to give DNA lectures.

Have you considered creating an one step tool for mitochondrial DNA comparisons?  Chatter on the DNA forums indicate that additional comparison analysis tools are required.

I’ll probably get into trouble for saying this, but I don’t find that mtDNA testing is that useful.  The mtDNA mutates very slowly, so most of what you will learn from it is what path your early ancestors took when the left Africa.  Although this can tell you if your distant maternal ancestor turned left or turned right when she got to Kenya, it won’t be that useful for determining who your second cousin on your mother’s side is.

Now of course this is not completely true.  As an example, mtDNA was used to solve the Anastasia mystery (as I mention in my lecture).  But for the most part it is not being used for finding close relatives, so I haven’t developed any tools for doing mtDNA comparisons.

Do you have any further comments about the sessions you are presenting at Rootstech?

You didn’t ask anything about my Potpourri lecture.  That is my signature lecture and covers the breadth of tools on my One-Step website.  It’s certainly a must-attend lecture for anyone who has not heard about the One-Step site, although I can’t imagine how anybody can call himself a genealogist if he’s never heard of it.  😉  But it’s also useful for those who have heard of me and the One-Step site.  Many of those people think the One-Step site is just about Ellis Island, and my lecture shows that there are over 200 tools on the site with Ellis Island being just a small portion of it.

About Dr. Morse – Stephen Morse is the creator of the One-Step Website for which he has received both the Lifetime Achievement Award and the Outstanding Contribution Award from the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, Award of Merit from the National Genealogical Society, first-ever Excellence Award from the Association of Professional Genealogists, and two awards that he cannot pronounce from Polish genealogical societies. In his other life Morse is a computer professional with a doctorate degree in electrical engineering.  He has held various research, development, and teaching positions, authored numerous technical papers, written four textbooks, and holds four patents. He is best known as the architect of the Intel 8086 (the granddaddy of today’s Pentium processor), which sparked the PC revolution 30 years ago.

[Editor – be sure to check out Dr. Morse’s one step tool for Where’s Grandpa – Finding your great grandfather in one step.  This is a man with a sense of humour… 🙂

A special thank you to Dr. Morse for his time spent answering my many questions.


Disclosure: I have been designated as a RootsTech Official Blogger which entitles me to free registration and other perks.

Author: © Joan Miller - Luxegen Genealogy.

The Luxegen Genealogy and Family History blog presents the family history stories of Joan Miller.