Christina Copland is one of a growing number of PhD graduates putting their degrees to use in untraditional careers. (Photos: Courtesy of Copland.)

A fascination with history has this alumna digging up roots

A PhD in history from USC Dornsife — and a boost from the Trojan Family — led Christina Copland to a career as a genealogist at
ByMargaret Crable

Curious about your family’s secrets? Give Christina Copland ’18 a call.

As a genealogist at, Copland, who received her PhD in history from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, helps people find their roots and track down relatives, often all the way back to the 1700s.

It’s a dream career for someone who grew up with an enthusiasm for archeology and history, sparked by reading about Ancient Egypt as a child. “I liked the idea of this puzzle you’re trying to put together of the past. That element is something that I’ve always kept with me and it’s a lot of what I do today,” she says.

A Brit abroad

Many Americans confess to a love of all things British. (There’s even a term for those enamored of things like high tea and English literature: “Angliophile.”) Copland, who grew up in England, will cop to a fascination running in the other direction.

“I’ve always had an interest in American politics,” she says. “There’s an interesting contrast with the United Kingdom. The U.S and the U.K. are very similar in some respects, but there are some really sharp differences, like the influence of religion.” Unlike in the U.K., evangelical Christianity has had an outsized impact in the U.S. on everything from politics to cultural institutions to the law.

While completing her master’s degree in modern history at the University of York, Copland discovered Lyman Stewart, an oil and citrus tycoon who used his wealth to help make Los Angeles an epicenter of fundamentalist Christianity in the early 1900s. In 1908, Stewart started the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (Biola), which has since trained tens of thousands of students in Christian theology.

To dig more into his story, Copland made a trip to Los Angeles to explore archives that held materials relevant to his enterprises and personal life. It was on this excursion that she met William Deverell, professor of history, spatial sciences and environmental studies and founding director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

“I just randomly emailed him, said I was going to be in Los Angeles and that I was interested in this topic. He graciously made time for me at the Huntington Library and encouraged me to apply to USC,” she says.

She was accepted and, overall, found Los Angeles and USC the perfect place to complete her dissertation. There was just one downside for a woman who hailed from a region known for its rain and fog: “The constant sunshine. It was too much for me!” she confesses.

All in the family

Christina Copland received her PhD in history from USC Dornsife in 2018.

Nearing graduation, Copland decided to treat herself to a trial subscription at to dig into her own family history, an activity she’d been curious about for a while. She was immediately hooked. “I started doing it, and it was like a light bulb went off in my head. It was addictive,” she says.

She soon found herself wondering, could she do this for a living? Copland had already planned on leaving academia after finishing her PhD studies. Working on genealogical projects, which required extensive knowledge of both history and the ability to analyze records, felt like a great fit given her background.

Copland hopped onto LinkedIn and began looking for anyone working at that might have a connection to USC. The Trojan family pulled through. Copland found a USC graduate who agreed to an informational interview, and then offered to forward Copland’s resume along for consideration.

“At the interview, I sold myself as a candidate who was trained as a historian who could very quickly learn the specific skills I needed for that role. I think it was a good sales pitch,” she says.

Ordinary people

Now, Copland spends her days working with private clients who have either hit an obstacle in their genealogical research or who don’t have the time or skills to build up their own family trees. She’s also worked on a number of celebrity genealogical projects for TV shows like NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?

Ordinary people also can have interesting cases. Copland helped out a friend who had been adopted and who, towards the end of her life, decided she wanted to know a bit more about her biological family. Copland made use of her friend’s DNA test to track down her father’s side of the family. The woman’s paternal relatives were delighted at the new-found connection, sending her messages and photos.

For students hoping to follow in Copland’s footsteps, she recommends practicing with your own family first. A degree in history would also be an excellent choice.

“You really need have the contextual knowledge of how people lived in the past and also the skills to be able to read a primary (original) document, understand what it’s telling you and what it’s not, and know where you might go next to answer your question,” she explains.

And, based off Copland’s own experience, an in with the Trojan Family can’t hurt either.