What is the Biggest Challenge Forensics Laboratories Face Today?

We asked ISHI 28 speakers to share what they thought were the biggest challenges facing forensic laboratories today. Do you agree? Join the conversation on our Facebook and Twitter pages!




Bruce Budowle, UNTHSC

“Resources, education and training. Most of the issues we are facing seem to be related to these needs..”





Chantal Frégeau, Royal Canadian Mounted Police

“From a Biology/DNA discipline perspective, the highly sensitive STR kits and capillary electrophoresis-based detection instruments currently used for forensic DNA typing analysis very often generate complex mixtures from “touch DNA” exhibits brought in by the investigators. The biggest challenge remains the interpretation of those complex mixtures and the determination of the relevance of a contributor’s DNA profile derived from an exhibit to the crime that has been committed. Probabilistic software can assist with the interpretation of complex mixtures but determining how the genotypes were deposited remains challenging (relevance to the crime).”



Scott Kennedy, University of Washington

“I’m not a forensic examiner, so it’s difficult for me to answer this question. However, one of the biggest issue that I see as an outside observer is that the field of forensic DNA analysis is increasingly being left behind and hasn’t really adjusted its thinking to “forensic genomic analysis”.”





Sylvain Hubac, Forensic Science Laboratory of the French Gendarmerie (IRCGN)

“In my opinion, the main goal today is obtaining a DNA result as quickly and simply as possible from the most challenging samples. The mobile DNA lab with fast and easy workflow is an alternative and a complementary solution to a traditional DNA lab. A mobile version can be very useful in certain situations (DVI, terrorist attack, ….) for obtaining DNA results in real time after collection. A mobile version can be also a better starting point than a complex traditional lab for countries that want develop their own forensic DNA capabilities.”





Cristina Rentas, DNA Labs International

“Although the subject has come to light in the media quite a bit the past few years, I feel that the sexual assault kit backlog is still one of the biggest challenges that forensic laboratories are trying to overcome.  In order to eliminate the backlog, many laboratories are contracting out these backlogged kits to private forensic laboratories, such as DNA Labs International.  Some of these labs do not have the staff in house to keep up with their current caseload in addition to going back to these old kits, especially with new legislation that limits the amount of time a kit can sit untested.  The good news is that this will allow the backlog to be eliminated, but what happens after that is done?  How can we ensure that the backlog will not happen again?  How do we keep up with forensic testing of evidence not from sexual assaults while still meeting legislative obligations from the sexual assault kit testing? I think that’s a question that they are still trying to find an answer to.”




Mike Yakoo, Program in Biomedical Forensic Sciences, Boston University School of Medicine

“Trust, but verify. Hands down the best advice I’ve ever received.”





Mandy Fashano, Columbus Police Forensic Services Center

“I think the biggest challenge forensics laboratories are facing today is the constant struggle to keep up with new technology and processing cases at the same time. Cases seem to be coming in the door faster than we can push them out. New technology has been shown to decrease time, save money, and help turn around cases faster than we could in previous years, but validations are costly and time consuming. This creates a struggle between processing cases in a timely manner and staying up-to-date with current technology.”





James Landers, University of Virginia, Department of Chemistry

“This is difficult for me to gauge.  While I train PhD students that often end up working in forensic laboratories, I have no experience working in a bona fide forensic lab.  That said, discussions with forensic scientists from crime labs, it is clear that there is a place for technology that fits into their current workflow, but expedites analysis.”





Rachel Oefelein, DNA Labs International

“Budgets and red tape!  Solving crime would be much easier if every lab had an indispensable budget.  Further complicating the matter is that because funding is so precious, the time it takes to get funding approval can also be of detriment to the speed in which a case is processed.”





Jody Hynds, Orange County District Attorney’s Office

“The tide of technology is changing and the legal system is a slow moving ship. Getting the new technology integrated in the daily life of the justice system by being one step ahead is difficult.”




Paul Berry, Louisiana State Police

“I would say OUR biggest challenge is keeping up with the sexual assaults and homicides submitted while not neglecting all the OTHER crimes/evidence submitted.  Even being a pretty efficient lab, the struggle is an arduous one.  Couple that with interpreting mixtures with 27 loci…? It’s painful.”




Sarah Schmedes, UNTHSC

“I believe the biggest challenge facing forensic laboratories today is implementing the newer technologies and standards into the lab. I believe this can be done, and soon, but many challenges hinder this implementation including funding, time and labor for validation studies, and consensus of standards to be implemented. Additionally, privacy concerns and/or differing laws and policies may hinder implementation in certain jurisdictions.”




Michael Marciano, Forensic and National Security Services Institute, Syracuse University

“In terms of interpretation, we have heard directly from many laboratories that the prediction of the number of contributors remains the biggest challenge.  However, another major challenge is to acclimate scientists to new types of analytical and statistical methods, such as those used in probabilistic genotyping. While training programs are very well constructed and executed, the constant rigors of casework leaves little time to develop the appropriate expertise in a timely fashion, particularly in smaller laboratories.  I do recognize, however, that this is a reality of casework and that all laboratories are actively addressing this challenge.”





Jonathan Adelman, Forensic and National Security Services Institute, Syracuse University

“I could point to many labs being under-funded and backlogged, and I think the challenge of working in that reality is enormous, but my biased answer is a bit more personal:  I think too many practicing forensic scientists aren’t sufficiently trained in statistical methods and mathematical literacy.  If few forensic scientists understand the underlying mathematics of any given technical solution to a forensics problem, few of us are then able to offer constructive criticism and the field as a whole is somewhat lessened as a result.  I think there is a fear of mathematics in some cases – it’s certainly something I’ve felt at various points in my career – and many of us are taught from the time we’re young that it’s okay to accept this fear as an end state.”