From Physicist to Forensic Genealogist

Colleen Fitzpatrick spent years in the lab as a nuclear physicist, until a series of setbacks nudged her in the direction of her passion: genealogy and tracking missing persons.

By Lynn Rosellini
forensic genealogy image
Former nuclear physicist Colleen Fitzpatrick tracks down missing people.
Photograph: Photo: Jessica Haye and Clark Hsiao

Fitzpatrick loved her lab, with its shiny steel optical table and various lasers, mirrors and lenses. She enjoyed sending beams of light dancing across the table to test the hermetic seals on pacemakers. But most of all, she loved the people. “They were like me: academics, scientists, always looking for new ideas, interested in art, literature, the humanities and travel,” she says.

With these friends, Fitzpatrick pursued numerous eclectic interests. They packed up telescopes and traveled around the globe to six solar eclipses. She was a contestant on Jeopardy!, where she nailed the science questions but finished second to a shirt salesman who beat her on French literature. She took knife-throwing lessons from the Great Throwdini and studied Japanese to add to the foreign languages she already spoke fluently: French, German and Spanish. (She’s also conversant in Italian, Russian and Chinese and says she can “limp along” in Swedish, Portuguese and Dutch.)

In 2005 her company seemed to be on the brink of a big break. “We were named to a team designing the next spacecraft to Jupiter,” she says. “I was in a position to be the technical manager for all the environmental sensors on the flight.” Then NASA shifted priorities and canceled the Jupiter project. The loss of the contract, along with other setbacks, forced Fitzpatrick to close the company and sell some of her equipment.

“It was pretty rough,” she recalls. “That company was my baby.”

Discouraged, she kept asking herself, What could I have done differently?  She spent her days moping. “I didn’t go to the lab,” she says. “I just stayed home. I felt in despair.”

“She’d yell at me,” says Yeiser, a retired physicist and computer engineer who has always been her emotional bulwark.

The bad times got worse. Fitzpatrick’s best friend died of breast cancer. Her scientist colleagues moved on to other jobs. “There were many days when I felt like the center of my life was gone,” she says. “I cried a lot. I felt embarrassed among my peers. When you fail, everyone looks at your flaws.”

Fitzpatrick had one island of sanity, though: During her years in the lab, she had dabbled in genealogy, which has interested her ever since she was a child. At 13, she’d found a yellowing marriage certificate in her grandmother’s house and eventually traced her family’s roots to a 17th-century French village. In 2002, in her spare time, she began work on a book, Forensic Genealogy, and was thrilled when a publisher offered her a contract. The book “was my sedative,” she says. A 220-page guide for professionals and amateurs, it explained how to examine old photographs and documents and use public records and DNA data­bases to trace family history.

When Fitzpatrick’s manuscript was ready for publication, “the publisher decided that forensic genealogy was passé,” she says. The company canceled the contract, and Fitzpatrick fell back into a depression.

Yeiser didn’t let her dwell on it. “Let’s just publish it ourselves,” he said.

They researched different papers, inks and distributors and hired a printer. Then they dug into their savings, investing $3,500 to print 500 copies of Forensic Genealogy. Fitzpatrick promoted the book at a genealogy conference in Maine. Sitting at a booth in a convention hall crammed with displays for family tree software, cemetery-database CDs, maps and photo-repair services, she thought, I’m wasting my time; nobody’s going to buy my book. Suddenly a man stopped, thumbed through a copy and got out his wallet. Fitzpatrick tried to stay calm, but she was ecstatic. She wrote inside the front cover, “This is the first book I ever sold! Colleen Fitzpatrick.”

By the end of the conference, she’d found 35 buyers and pocketed $1,000.

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