Course Lab: Lessons from Successful Online Course Creators
Getting the Most Out of Your DNA Results (ft. Diahan Southard)
July 19, 2021
How do you create an online course about DNA and make it interesting and understandable? In this episode of Course Lab, Mirasee’s Danny Iny and Ruzuku’s Abe Crystal talk with course creator and industry pioneer, Diahan Southard, about her course “Your DNA Guide.”
Episode summary: How do you create an online course about DNA and genealogy and make it interesting and understandable to people? First, you become an expert in the field and start your own DNA education company. You work with DNA tests that people have taken and use the results to help them better understand their family history. And when a pandemic hits, you pivot your knowledge of genetics into something that is accessible online.

In this episode, our hosts Danny Iny and Abe Crystal will take a closer look at the course “Your DNA Guide”.  The course creator, Diahan Southard, is a microbiologist and the author of the book “Your DNA Guide”. She has a gift for making complex DNA concepts engaging and understandable. 
Diahan started volunteering in a college lab, and that project turned into the first genetic genealogy database. And that exploded into the industry of genetic genealogy we know today.
In this episode we discuss:

“So the pilot really helped me refine what was necessary for them to learn at this stage. And the great thing is I've taken all the extra and I'm going to make a second course.” – Diahan Southard

Guest Bio:
Diahan Southard is a leading voice for consumer DNA testing, one of the world's most fascinating, dynamic and socially-transformative new hobbies. Nearly 30 million people have taken a DNA test. The numbers keep rising and so do the uses of their data--and questions about that use. As Founder of Your DNA Guide Diahan teaches internationally, writes for popular magazines, consults with leading testing companies, is the author if Your DNA Guide – the Book, and producer of Your DNA Guide – the Academy, an online learning experience. Southard's company, Your DNA Guide (, provides genetic genealogy education products and services. You will walk away from an interaction with her enlightened and motivated as she has a passion for genetic genealogy, a genuine love for people, and a gift for making the technical understandable.
Diahan’s involvement in genetic genealogy began nearly 20 years ago as a bench scientist for the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, the world's first genetic genealogy database. Diahan often weighs in on the compelling--and sometimes competing--ethical, familial, health, and criminal justice implications of consumer DNA testing. She voices the conviction that learning ancestral ethnicity can unite people rather than divide them. She counsels those who learn family secrets to tread carefully but courageously. Diahan seeks to bridge the needs of those who want answers from DNA with those who want privacy. The stories she shares illuminate the human experience of navigating the histories hidden deep within the genomes of individuals, families and societies.

Diahan Southard

Resources or websites mentioned in this episode:
  1. Mirasee 


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Episode transcript: Getting the Most Out of Your DNA Results (Diahan Southard):

[00:00:00] Signature sound:  Mirasee. 

[00:00:06] Diahan Southard: And so when you think of genetic genealogy databases today, you might be familiar with 23-and-me or Ancestry DNA or MyHeritage. All of that started with this little college project that I was a part of that really exploded into the industry we know today. Yeah. 

Danny Iny: Hello and welcome to Course Lab. The show that teaches course creators like you how to make better online courses. I'm Danny Iny, founder and CEO here at Mirasee, and I'm with my co-host, Abe Crystal, the co-founder of Ruzuku. In each episode, we showcase a course and course creator who is doing something really interesting with their course. Our guest today is Diahan Southard. She is a microbiologist and author who teaches people how to make sense of their DNA testing. 
Diane. Welcome to Course Lab. 

Diahan Southard: Thank you so much Danny and Abe for having me. I am just thrilled to be here. 

Danny: Well, we are thrilled to have you here and give us kind of the 30,000 ft view of just who are you, what do you do? How did you come to be doing this? 

Diahan: Well you can actually trace my origin too. My high school English teacher actually. So if any of you out there are teaching high schoolers there's a chance you could have an incredible impact on someone just with a simple phrase. So one thing our high school English teacher encouraged all of us to do is he said as soon as you get to college find a professor who is researching something you're interested in and get involved. And that one piece of advice has completely changed the course of my entire life. So I took his advice and I got to college. I want to do something with D. N. A. And genetics. 

And I went to Brigham Young University so I went to the biology department and I asked the secretary there for a list of topics like every professor has to research and publish. And so she had a list and I looked down the list and it was like virology and I was like boring bacteria... boring. And then there was dr Scott Woodward who was doing archeo genetics. I was like what is this? So I walked down the hall I knocked on his door and he was like well we have this cemetery right outside of Cairo Egypt but the cemetery is not attached to any town and we're trying to use DNA and other evidence to try to figure out who these people are. And I was like yeah I want to do that. And so I just started volunteering in the lab and honestly, that project turned into the first genetic genealogy database. And so when you think of genetic genealogy databases today, you might be familiar with 23-and-me or Ancestry D. N. A. or MyHeritage. All of that started with this little college project that I was a part of that really exploded into the industry. We know today. 

Danny: That is so cool. So how did that bring you to where you are now teaching a course called your DNA guide? 

Diahan: Basically when people ask that, I say divine intervention, like for me, like there is no other way I could have ended up here. It really started with priorities that I had in my life. So I right after college I started working for what would then become a foundation that was starting this genetic genealogy database. The foundation turned into a company and write about the same time I started my family, I started having babies and they were very flexible and they said, hey, you still want to work for us in some capacity while you're having your kids great. And they just worked with me and then it got to the point where they were sold actually to Ancestry DNA. So the project I was working on for all of those years became the foundation of the product that Ancestry DNA now offers. And at that point it was like, well I can either work full time for Ancestry DNA or do something else and I just didn't want to work full time. I wanted to be a full-time mom and do this on this side. And so I just made the decision that was more important to me was to stay home with my kids and I had a couple of other colleagues who kind of had other opportunities and we just kind of cobbled something together for a while and eventually they got real jobs and it was just me.

And so I became “Your DNA Guide”, a DNA education company, working with any DNA test that anybody has taken across any platform and helping them use it to understand their family history. So someone has already taken a DNA test of some kind and then they come to you or do they also take your course in preparation for taking their DNA test? Well, the current course that I'm offering is only for people that have had a DNA test taken, but of course, I've got millions of ideas for more courses and one of them will be kind of a foundational course to help people understand what testing options are out there. But for now, we have an incredible blog on my website that gives you all of those kinds of pointers. One of our most popular blog posts is “What DNA test should I take?”. And we kind of take you through the options that are out there to help you decide what might be best for you if you haven't yet taken a DNA test. 

Danny: Okay, cool. So tell us about your current course, your DNA guide. When did you first build it? What inspired you to do it? What does, what does it look like? Somebody signs up and says I'm in, what is their experience? Tell us all about it. 

Diahan: Before March of 2020, I was very busy on the lecture circuit. So people, genealogy societies. So these are whole societies of people that are gathered together with the purpose of learning how to find their family more effectively. And of course, DNA is now a huge part of that. And so I was really busy traveling two or three weekends a month, going to different states, even internationally to conferences and teaching and lecturing and that was a huge part of my income. I released a book in March of 2020. Also, that is a step-by-step book teaching you how to do this, find your ancestor using your DNA. So things were like going really well and I was envisioning 2020 to be a year of these book sales because you show up in person and you lecture and you get paid for that. But it's really the sales side that was making money as far as keeping my business alive. And so I had ordered in anticipation of all of these conferences, I was attending lots of books and I was self-publishing. So when the pandemic hit and all of those speaking engagements were canceled and now I'm sitting on this big pile of books and I was like, what am I going to do? 

And so I had already thought of doing online courses, but I hadn't made the time most likely to do it. And so I started, you know, scouring Youtube because that's what we all do now when we want to learn how to do something new, I was trying to make things way too complicated and it doesn't need to be complicated because I just, I do, I overcomplicate, I, I'm very creative and I want everything to be amazing and fantastic and I want to have all the bells and whistles and that's just not what I needed. And so that was in May of 2020. And so I took the course builder's workshop through the Mirasee and by August I was ready for my pilot and  I have a mailing list which is a huge asset. I learned that I actually have a lot of assets that help me already kind of be totally poised to have a wonderful experience in launching a workshop an online workshop And so I just basically put it out to my mailing list with a pilot pricing and we had 25 spots open and we sold out in four hours. 

Danny: That's amazing. And what did you charge for those pilot spots? 

Diahan: I charged for $97 through the pilot and I had a lot of people tell me that that wasn't enough, obviously selling out in four hours was not, that was a good sign are of course now it's called the DNA Skills workshop is what we're calling it now and it's  $997 is the price now the full workshop. So we ran the pilot, we actually run the pilot twice, I tweak some things the second time and learned a lot both times. And then we launched the full workshop in January 2021 With 50 people and we almost killed it. And then in March we did it again and had sold 48 spots of the 50. 

Danny: That's amazing. What were the numbers on the second pilot? 

Diahan: 25, and we sold out that easily. It wasn't in four hours but it was in like two or three days. Cool. Also at $497 and we weren't doing any real marketing campaigns like the first time even. We did a better job like the second time we basically went back to our list was like okay, we decided to do this again, does anybody want to join us? So we didn't do as good of a job selling it the second time, which showed, so we learned a lot that way also, which was really helpful.  But yeah, so we sold, I think it was in January. We had like 44 I think. Yeah, 44 in January. And then 48 in March.

Danny: Very cool. And how large is your email list? I'm sure people are gonna want to know. 

Diahan: So it's grown a ton just over the spring. We've done a lot of really great events. So right now we have about 14,000 on our list, but back when we were doing the pilot, it was probably more like 10,000. Very cool. 

Danny: So tell us about the actual course, How does it, how does it work? How long is it, what's the experience like? 

Diahan: Right, so I again, in the spirit of trying to keep things simple, which I just love and it works so much better than complicating everything.  So the idea is that it's a six-week course and it started as a five-week course, but we decided we actually did a week off in the middle to let people catch up and to give them time to do their own genealogy research there as well. And so it's really a six-week course with five weeks of instruction. So we, all the videos are pre-recorded and it has lifetime access through Ruzuku actually. So now you can go to courses dot your DNA guide dot com and it looks like my site, but I'm not doing any of the hard work, you are. So there's five weeks' worth of videos and there's probably about between 30 and 50 minutes of video to watch, But they're all broken up into 10-12 minute segments. And each video consists of instruction classwork. So like during the video I tell them to stop me talking right now and do what I just asked you to do. So it's either going out to their own DNA results and doing something or I've given them a workbook and I need to fill out something in their workbook. But it's like while we're in class together, I'm telling them to pause me and go do this work. So they do that. 

Ruzuku is wonderful. It has a discussion board. So I have a prompt in there that lets people ask their questions and I'm always monitoring that. So they get feedback within a couple of hours usually from when they post it. What the best thing is though is when they post a question and I haven't had a chance to answer and another student comes in and answers and I love love, love that it's so fun to see them helping each other and even going outside the scope of the course. I mean, of course, is really just about how to use your D. N. A. But of course, there's a whole genealogy component to it. Well, how do I find this record, or have you ever looked for Canadian records and everybody is so helpful? That's wonderful about the community that I'm a part of their just so giving and they love to share with each other. So it's so nice to have that discussion board where they can just kind of share resources back and forth and I can answer their questions right away. Which has been very helpful so they can post on the discussion board and they go through all the courses and then in their workbook they have homework. 

And this is where I feel like the transformation really occurs because you don't know what you've learned until you try to put it into practice and you have an answer because they're going to try to put it into practice in their own family history, but they don't have the answer yet. Like they don't know if they've done it right, and so it's impossible to check. But when I give them a scenario and I give them all the data as if it was real, then they can work the problem and see if they got the right answer. Then they know if they've done it correctly and this builds confidence and this is number one, what's lacking in people who want to use DNA to find their family, They just don't feel like they can, you know, like science is such an I don't know, it's a topic that people just automatically put up barriers, Oh I'm not a scientist, I can't do that. And that's number one when I'm trying to break down our little catchphrases, you can do the D. N. A. And that's what I want to infuse into my students and it's working. It's so wonderful and I love it. They post on the discussion board. Although right in are we have surveys that we follow up, how did this class go for you and what could we change? So we're always trying to improve. But they'll say oh this was the lightbulb moment for me, this is what I really felt like. I didn't know how to do it before and I was just missing this little part and now I'm super confident and it's so nice. It's so exciting to hear them say I get it and I know what to do next in my own family history. 

Danny: It sounds like a real kind of active ingredient in making this work. Is that interactive workbook logistically, how does it work? How do you make the workbook interactive? 

Diahan: I'm actually in the middle of making another course right now and it takes so long and I kind of hate it in a little way because I'm so careful that when you're making your slides for your course, you have to be making the workbook at the same time. Because a big disconnect that we actually had in the pilot was I used some different images kind of I mean they weren't really different. I didn't feel like they were different in the slide as I did in the workbook, like and people were like, wait, that doesn't look exactly the same. And so to make the page on the workbook look exactly the same as the page they see on the screen was really important. And I learned that really fast to give them page numbers so that they're working right along with you and they know exactly where they are in the work. Working the class work together was really helpful. So again I'm saying cause me, and sometimes I'll say, hey, did you really pause me? Don't skip this part? You need to do the classwork, you know, and so you can keep it fun so that people listen otherwise they just watch it all the way through and they think, oh, I don't need to do this right now and I really want them to understand, no, this is how you learn. We do one small thing and then you practice it and then we learn and then you do that small thing and you practice it because if you just watch it all the way through, you think you get it but you didn't. And so it's really that interaction between the classwork where you're right there with me and you've just barely done it and I'm going through it with you again and it's just that repetition, it's that reinforcement and again, it's that building confidence or if they've done something wrong right there in the classwork, I fix it in the next two minutes, they realize what they've done. And so that corrects it right away before it perpetuates into something more. 

Abe: I mean, it sounds like a lot of things in the course are working really well right now, which is always great to hear. Were there things that you learned in the pilot that didn't work so well or if you had to change or it right on to get it to where it is today? 

Diahan: Yeah, for sure. And one of them was what I'd already learned from Danny was keeping it simple that I kind of ignored and I was like, no, no, no, they want to know this. And I taught in the pilot and as I'm teaching and I'm like this was ridiculous, they don't need to know this, but it was too late. I was already teaching because I did all the pilots live right, which was such a safe as well. Like instead of spending all this time recording, I was just teaching live, which I'm really comfortable with and you know, I've done it for years and it's really easy for me. And so it was nice to just get a product out again and start teaching. But in the middle of the class, like I gave them a break. Actually, I remember this, I gave them a break and I called my colleague who was online with me and I was like what am I doing there? Also lost. He was like, no, no, no, it's okay. I think if you just kind of go back and but I totally took that out, like that whole section of things that I taught, I took out and that was so valuable to teach it and to realize it was too much for them. Like they didn't need that part of the information at this stage and they're learning, but I thought that they did because I felt all this pressure to give away information and it was too much. So the pilot really helped me refine what was necessary for them to learn at this stage. And the great thing is I've taken all the extra and I'm going to make a second course and I've already pitched it to all my current DNA Skills workshop people and they're constantly asking me when I'm going to launch that strategy, of course, I can't wait to take it because they get the core stuff now and they've had a wonderful experience in the workshop and they're ready for the next one. And so it's exciting.

Abe: Did you have to go through kind of your own mindset shift in how you approach course design as part of that process? 

Diahan: Oh, 100% yes, because I wanted to create a course that was more like my book. So my book is kind of like a choose your own adventure. So you come to the first page of the book with your question. So I want to find my two times great grandparents and I say fantastic turn to page 21 and then on page 21 you're going to go through these steps, I'm going to ask you some questions and then I'm gonna say, do you have the situation a and you say yes, and you go to page 22 if you have situation be, I'm going to send you to page 57. So I wanted the course to just mirror that process and so people could just essentially do the book through a course and so it had to be branching, I had to have all of these different scenarios and that's how I was thinking of. Building my online course was just to be exactly what the book is. And I quickly found that was really hard to do without an LMS and LMS is super expensive and I'm a one-man band and I can't afford that. And so, and it takes forever to build that kind of thing. It took me forever to write the book, let alone like program it into something, you know? And so it took me a while to just figure out that I don't actually need that. I can still create a transformative experience for people without that. And they have the book like that's part of the course, right? You get the book and so I don't need to duplicate work. I've already done it. I can make something companion wiser, companionable that goes along with it. 

Abe: Yes. I mean this has just been a really great walk-through. I don't have any burning questions right top of my head Danny. Did you have anything else? 

Danny: No, I was thinking the same thing. I feel like we covered so much ground. Really, really well.

Abe: Diahan, thank you. Diahan Southard is a microbiologist and author who teaches people how to make sense of their DNA testing. You can find her at your DNA guide dot com. That's your DNA guide dot com.

Now, stick around for my favorite part of the show where I and Abe will pull out the very best insights in practical takeaways for you to take and apply to your own course. So is there's some really cool stuff to dissect and dive into what jumped out to you? 

Abe: Well I'll start with the easy one or more of a classic point I guess. So something we, you know, often talk to people about in terms of getting their courses going and also designing a really effective course is don't overcomplicate things, like don't try to throw everything in the kitchen sink into your course and wind up overwhelming your participants in the process. And Diahan’s story really drove home what that looks like in practice. So she created a pilot, she had all these ideas and content from her book and her speaking and she basically threw everything she could think of into the course. And sure enough, it was too much. But that's why you do the pilot right? She found that out talking to people that they were getting stuck, they were confused about what to focus on. They weren't, you know, always doing the assignments and she took that feedback and really simplified the course, slimmed it down, made it more minimalist in design. And uh you know how she's seeing people really, really engaged, making progress, not getting confused.  And you know, she realized too that it's not like that content was lost. She could use it in other courses in other areas of her business. So it's a win-win there. Yeah.

Danny: And it's you know that drive towards simplicity, she really wants, she internalized it, you know, she really took it very far with the small stackable content 8-12 minutes long with the assignments to lead into action. And you know when you really have that focus really kind of I guess dials in your attention to the idea that uh so I have a t-shirt with this Jack Dorsey quote that you have to make every detail perfect and you have to limit the number of details. I feel like she saw that as well in the lesson about the consistency between the slides in the workbook. Right? When even the image was a little bit different, people suddenly got confused and I think that's a function of you know, if you are an expert in the subject area, if you have that fluency you can look at the information kind of get a sense of, okay, this is core and this is peripheral or this is superfluous, right? You know, the image doesn't matter. It's illustrative. They just swap this out when you're just learning something. You don't have the discernment to make that judgment yet. And so you're looking to like everything must be significant, otherwise, it isn't, you know, otherwise it wouldn't be there. And so even those little discrepancies were really confusing. So you know, dialing down the breadth of what is covered and really dialing up the specificity and precision of getting every one of those details right? Was also a really good takeaway there.

Abe: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, that's applicable to many, many different types of courses. I mean the other thing that stood out for me is just the importance of sheer passion, right? I mean, you can tell how passionate Diane is about her work and how it helps people and that really comes through in how well she's serving her clients. I mean a lot of what we talk about is trying to help people who are passionate, not get stuck in, like just giving away their ideas for free. You know, it actually builds a business around their courses, but you know, sometimes we may get kind of lost in you know, thinking about business models and funnels and how do I market my course, but the, like the passion for like what you teach and who you're trying to serve is a fundamental part of creating something really great.  and I think her work really demonstrates how powerful that passion can be when you just pour it into the course, you're creating.

Danny: It made a lot of times just listen to her too, right? There's something contagious and infectious about passion. So something else that was really interesting to me was the interactive workbook with the homework, even though she said it was a pain in the ass to put it together. It was a lot of work, but it really seems like it was the active ingredient that made the course so successful. So having this small snack, herbal bites of content, then it's like now go do the work in your interactive workbook.  That was a very powerful mechanism for creating a container for people to do that work and really internalize what they're supposed to be internalizing.

Abe: A common thread in multiple courses that we're looking at in Course Lab is that they provide forms of interaction that they get students to do the work, right? But they, in a way that's aligned with the bigger focus of the course here, it was an interactive workbook. And for other courses, it would be a different format, but sort of cracking the code for what's going to work in your specific course to get your students taking action is it seems to be a critical piece of the puzzle.

Danny: Now, the debrief wouldn't be complete without talking about this is your favorite area, which is the community discussion which of course was facilitated by the use of technology and she built her course on. Do you want to speak to that?

Abe: Yeah. I mean, we we've seen that community is is a component of multiple courses we reviewed. And I think it's it's a critical piece. I mean sort of now, more than ever where people have many different options for getting content online, right. Whether it's a, you know, free video and Youtube blog post or a low cost of course on you. To me, like there's information of all kinds out there. So what actually sets your course apart? Well, some of it is the design of the care you put into the course, but a lot of it is, does it feel like it's actually a social interaction, right? Does it feel like you're getting meaningful support from other people, , that the instructor is present? You know, and not just this disembodied video voice. So figuring out how community slots into your course, I think is a question everyone should really think about if they're not already. , and then think about what do you need to do to actually make community engaging in meaningful for your specific group of students? It's not enough in most cases now to just slap together a discussion for or put up a discussion prompt on ridicule and hope for the best. You really need to think about what are the needs and questions of people coming into your course, What are they looking for in terms of community, what are the areas where they might get stuck? And they're going to want to have that support from their peers and from you and then trying to put in prompts that are going to lead to that community interaction being more meaningful. Yeah.

Danny: And it's so worth the effort to do that. Because I think what we also saw from Diane's example in her courses is that once you get over a certain threshold it's a flywheel, it starts to turn more easily and sometimes with its own moment right? That moment as she was describing when, you know, a question is posted before she can even get to it. It is answered by someone else in the community. That's a very special moment.

Abe: Yeah, I love it. I guess that's it on the debrief for me. 

Danny: Yeah that's all I got too. So do you want to read us out? 

Abe: Let's do it. Course Lab is a Mirasee original production. Thank you for listening to Course Lab. I'm Abe Crystal from Ruzuku and my co-host is Danny Iny. This episode of Course Lab was produced by Cynthia Lamb. Michi Lantz and Geoff Govertsen assembled the episode. Danny's our executive producer. 

Big thanks to Diahan Southard for taking the time to tell us about her course. You can find out more about her at your D. N. A guide dot com. That's your DNA guide dot com. 

Don't forget to tune into Mirasee’s new podcast Making It. In each episode, a successful entrepreneur will share what making it means to them and what they've learned along the way. Make sure you don't miss the really great episodes coming up on this season of Course Lab. So subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you're listening right now. And if you like the show, please leave us a starred review. It's the best way to help us get these ideas to more people. Thank you. We'll see you next time. 

Danny: I mean I was actually thinking in my head that, Cynthia, this would be a good interview to share with other prospective guests as an example of like here's how to do it well. 

Diahan: So I think this is probably going to be concise, right? 

Abe: Well you actually answer the questions thoroughly, which a lot of people say exactly not what to do. 

Danny: Like, like you were concise in the sense of being not rambling, but you were also like, you know, like verbose in the sense that there were stories and there were details and it was interesting and there was personality. So I know that this was great.