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Attention Donor 3046: Your Daughter Made A Podcast To Find You

Anya Steinberg's podcast, "He's Just 23 Chromosomes," is one of two grand prize winners in the collegiate edition of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.
Elissa Nadworny
Anya Steinberg's podcast, "He's Just 23 Chromosomes," is one of two grand prize winners in the collegiate edition of NPR's Student Podcast Challenge.

Updated April 22, 2021 at 8:29 AM ET

Anya Steinberg remembers the exact moment she discovered a family secret. It was in an elementary school biology lesson about genetics. "My dad, who I thought was my biological dad at the time, was 50% Korean. But I'm 50% Korean," Steinberg says, "and I was like 50 doesn't make 50 because my mom's not Korean at all."

She had a lot of questions. When she pressed her mom, it turned out the man she thought was her father, her mom's husband at the time, wasn't. Instead, she and her younger brother had DNA from the same sperm donor, one who was 100% Korean.

Growing up, it had been a fun fact she'd whip out at parties, "I would be like, 'I was made in a petri dish in a lab!'," she remembers. But by the time she went off to Colorado College, a liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, it wasn't so funny anymore.

Steinberg felt adrift in her identity. Her parents had gotten divorced when she was young and her mom, who is white, raised her and her brother. She considered herself Asian American, but she didn't feel connected to her heritage.

So she set out to learn everything she could about "donor dad," sample #3046. She documented that journey in an audio story titled "He's Just 23 Chromosomes," which she submitted to the collegiate edition of the NPR Student Podcast Challenge. The judges chose it as one of two grand prize winners.

(A quick warning: There is some adult language in this podcast.)

Steinberg started with what she had always been told: That 'donor dad' had been training to become a doctor at Stanford University in California.

Once she'd learned the real story about her origins, Steinberg had always thought of the donor as an academic; bookish. She imagined he liked systems — like the human body — so she did too; she was studying to be an ecologist, considering Ph.D. programs.

But there was a big miscommunication.

"I swear to God I thought we picked the doctor," explains Kristin Wintermute, Anya's mom, in the podcast.

When Steinberg searched sample #3046 in the search tool on the sperm bank's web site, she discovered her mom had actually picked a jazz musician; a creative type who played the trumpet and dreamed of directing a major motion picture.

These few details, Steinberg says, completely changed her ideas of who she is. At the time, she'd been conducting research, counting trees atop the mountains that tower over Colorado Springs. Every day she'd hike several miles up, and those hikes provided a lot of time to think.

Learning new details about her donor dad made Steinberg rethink her identity and what she wanted to do with her life.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Learning new details about her donor dad made Steinberg rethink her identity and what she wanted to do with her life.

"Maybe I'm not even meant to be doing this," Steinberg remembers thinking on those climbs. "My dad isn't concerned with this kind of stuff, and maybe it's OK if I'm not concerned with it either."

Behind the scenes

Steinberg created her podcast at her off-campus group house in Colorado Springs, in her small bedroom in the basement. She recorded herself while standing at her dresser with a towel over her head for better sound quality — a tip she learned watching thenew Billie Elish documentary.

Steinberg recorded her podcast standing at her dresser with a towel over her head for better sound quality.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
Steinberg recorded her podcast standing at her dresser with a towel over her head for better sound quality.

In addition to the discoveries she makes about her sperm donor, Steinberg's podcast features interviews with her younger brother, Ari, and her mom, Kristin. They're both pretty vulnerable and open in those talks.

When we visited, Steinberg curled up on her bright orange bedspread and called her mom on FaceTime.

"Hi, how are you?"

"Oh I'm good! Just bragging about you on Facebook," her mom says, laughing.

Wintermute says her daughter has always been a storyteller (a family favorite was one she made up about a magic garden, where flowers transported you around the world) and from an early age was curious about her identity and the way she looked. Wintermute remembers her daughter running around the house when she was little saying "I'm ambiguous!" because she says, "people visualized you as ambiguous."

"I know that people say that in families, "Oh, you look just like your mother,' " Wintermute says. "But I feel like that takes away from who you are, because you don't look like me."

"Oh, really? You think so?" Steinberg asks. "What the heck, man, you're trying to disown me here?"

"Well, maybe parts of you," her mom jokes.

"I think we have the same nose," Steinberg offers. Her mom isn't convinced. "You did get my laugh though!"

Still, the podcast's story itself, about the sperm donor, came as a surprise to her mom. "I didn't know [Anya] was laying in her room, staring at the ceiling, wondering what this guy was like," she says. "It was just kind of how I had children and I didn't know that it had such an impact on her."

But they both agree, the podcast has brought a new openness to their relationship.

"There weren't a lot of times, for better or for worse, that we talked about our identities," says Steinberg, "or about what it means to be Korean kids." But making the podcast allowed her to start having some of those conversations.

"This podcast was a way for me to be like, 'I'm going to ask you questions, but it's OK because there's a microphone here,' " says Steinberg. "It gave me permission to ask things that I'd never asked before: How are you feeling? What did you think about that? What did Dad say? What did my brother say? Different things that I'd never really gotten the courage to ask about."

A false ending

Steinberg ends the podcast with a call to the sperm bank her parents used in California. The credits roll before you hear the conversation — to make a bit of a cliffhanger ending.

"I didn't actually go through with it because I was too scared," Steinberg admits. "So I just recorded it and then hung up immediately."

When she found out she'd won NPR's Student Podcast Challenge, she knew it was time to actually make the call. When she finally connected with someone at the organization, she discovered there's actually a lot of paperwork and documentation involved in contacting a sperm donor. She and her mom are in the process of making it happen, but ultimately, Steinberg says, it will be up to her sperm donor to reach out.

"In some ways, you just have to take it as it comes," Steinberg says. "If he says no, I would understand, but I would also be really crushed because I'm going to have to find a way to ground myself without him."

She's hopeful, though, and ended our visit with a request:

"If donor 3046 is listening to this — you should email me!"

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny
Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Sequoia Carrillo
Sequoia Carrillo is a reporter for NPR's Education Team. Along with covering big stories like the student debt crisis and segregation in K-12 schools, she reports on innovation in the education space — sometimes for Code Switch.