AITKIN, Minn. — Teasing from her cousins led one woman to Lea Ranum.

Ranum, of Aitkin, helps people discover their birth-family members by using mail-in DNA testing services and genealogical resources.

The woman, Ranum said, had always questioned her paternity because she didn’t have her family’s signature nose shape. “Her cousins were always telling her she didn’t have ‘the nose,’ ” Ranum said. “It’s, like, the nose knows. They always thought, ‘Well, she can’t be one of us.’ ”

The woman hired Ranum, the owner of Lost Tree LLC, to figure out the identity of her biological father.

Thanks to mail-in ancestry DNA-testing kits, people are learning all kinds of surprising things about their family trees — including shocking news about birth parents and long-lost siblings.

Ranum, a self-taught expert in DNA and genealogical research, said she has uncovered family secrets buried for decades.

“There was one woman who said: ‘I always knew my dad wasn’t my dad. I always felt like the black sheep of the family,’ ” Ranum said. “So she knew, but she said, ‘I want to know for sure.’ I helped her do that.”

Many of Ranum’s clients are adoptees who want to learn more about their birth family and fill in gaps in their health history. Others are people who have received surprising test results; still others have “suspected their entire life that something wasn’t quite right,” she said.

Putting the puzzle together

Since starting her part-time business last year, Ranum has helped dozens of people find their biological parents and family. She charges $30 an hour; the average search takes eight to 10 hours, she said.

Ranum, who is married and has two young children, does her research at night and on weekends at her kitchen table, on a Surface Pro laptop computer.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, while baby Annika napped, Ranum worked to solve her latest puzzle: the identity of a client’s biological mother.

“It is about making sure the pieces fit,” Ranum said. “If one doesn’t, then I have to dig further. When it all fits, it’s like placing the last piece in a 1,000-piece puzzle.”

About 15 percent of adults in the United States have used a mail-in DNA testing service such as AncestryDNA or 23andMe, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Most said they did so to learn more about their family origins.

Seeking clues in the DNA

Here’s how the testing kits work: Customers send saliva samples to a company such as AncestryDNA or 23andMe. Then, usually about six weeks later, they get a notification to log in to an account on the company’s website. There, they find personalized web pages with information about their ethnicity, such as their percentage of Swedish ancestry, and a list of DNA matches based on the number of centimorgans (a measure of genetic linkage) they share with others who have taken the test.

“You receive randomly half of your father’s DNA and half of your mother’s DNA,” Ranum said. “When you share a portion of the signature with another person, it indicates that you are related.”

Ranum said she recommends that her clients take the AncestryDNA test because of the company’s access to genealogical resources. She took it in 2014 along with her siblings, first cousins, aunts and uncles.

“Every one of them showed up as a match to me, and their relationship was accurately described based on the amount of DNA we have in common,” she said. “There were no surprises.”

That wasn’t the case for Monaie Hebert of St. Paul.

St. Paul woman's discovery

Hebert received a $99 mail-in AncestryDNA kit as a Christmas present in 2017. She swabbed her cheek a few months later and sent off a saliva sample, curious to learn more about her grandparents’ countries of origin.

“My mom was Norwegian, and my dad was French, so I expected it to say I was half-Norwegian and half-French,” she said. “But it came back 50 percent Norwegian and 50 percent Jewish.”

Questions regarding her paternity weren’t the only ones raised. She learned of family members on her mother’s side, including first and second cousins, she had never met or even heard of.

“Not only did I find out that my father wasn’t my birth father,” Hebert said, “but it turns out my maternal grandfather wasn’t my birth grandfather, either.”

“It’s an identity thing,” said Hebert, who works as a case manager for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. “Who I thought I was … I wasn’t on some level. I have this whole other family out there I know nothing about. All of a sudden, I’m erasing half of my family tree.”

Turning to the DNA detective

Hebert, whose mother died in 2015, took another DNA test, 23andMe, and spent months building her family tree. She reached out to newly found cousins and joined a private Facebook group called DNA NPE Friends, where NPE refers to “Not Parent Expected.”

“Finally, this weird secret started unraveling,” she said. “I found a third cousin through Facebook, and it turns out we have mutual friends. I have a first cousin who lives just a mile away. He’s practically in my back yard.”

Eventually, a friend suggested Hebert reach out to Ranum.

Ranum determined that Hebert’s biological father was either a man named Art Resnick, a professional musician living in Portland, Ore., or Resnick’s younger brother.

“I just got (Art’s) number off Whitepages.com,” Hebert said. “I had already viewed videos of him on YouTube because he was a musician … and so I already had an idea and picture of him in my head.”

She called him in October 2018.

‘I think you're my dad’

“I was, like, ‘Listen, I’m trying to solve a mystery here,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘I think your parents are my grandparents.’ And he’s, like, ‘What are you saying?’ I said, ‘I think you’re my dad.’ ”

“My very first reaction was that somebody was scamming me,” said Resnick, 78. “After it turned out that it was true, I was elated, and I have been delighted ever since. That’s how I feel: I’m amazed and delighted. Having Monaie in my life gives my life more meaning.”

The two met for the first time in February, when Hebert flew to Portland for a week.

Resnick said he and Hebert have many similarities.

“The nose is the same, for sure,” he said. “We both have dark hair. She’s tall and thin, and that’s basically how I was.”

Resnick, who grew up in Minneapolis, came to Minnesota in late May to see Hebert and meet his granddaughter, Alana Wall, 19, for the first time. He is in the process of relocating to Minnesota to be closer to his newly found family.

“He has an amazing heart, and I feel very lucky to be welcomed into his life,” Hebert said.