It was Alec Jeffrey’s paper on RFLP analysis that proved the catalyst for Robin Cotton to alter her career path from research on the Y chromosome to the applied science of DNA typing.
A biochemist by training, Cotton had a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry from UC Irvine and two post-docs under her belt. She was working in a lab at NIH in 1988 when a chemist friend showed her a newspaper clipping from The Washington Post. It featured an interview with people who were starting a lab in Germantown, Maryland to do DNA identification. She contacted the lab, Cellmark Diagnostics, to see if they were hiring, and since accepting her first position there, Robin has been involved in some of the most consequential events in the field of forensics.
Written by: Carol Bingham, Promega
Prior to the late 1980s, DNA typing did not exist. The most informative information to be obtained from blood stains were blood groups, which were of limited use. RFLP analysis coupled with Alec Jeffrey’s discovery of the massive amount of length polymorphism in some types of repeated DNA sequences allowed was a game changer. Early DNA labs, like Cellmark, used single locus RFLP probes on Southern blots. Compared to today’s tests, the technology was quite simple, but even so, results were orders of magnitude more informative than blood group typing.
In the early days of DNA fingerprinting very few police departments had their own in-house laboratories with DNA capability to process samples. Most agencies outsourced their samples to service labs including Cellmark which was one of the first laboratories in the United States to provide services for criminal investigations. As luck would have it, Dr. Cotton had been working for Los Angeles Police Department for a number of years and was requested to analyze the first 24 samples submitted by the LAPD for the O.J. Simpson case. Testifying on the DNA results for this case proved to be one of the most interesting and intense experiences of her career.
One thing that surprised Robin about providing testimony for the OJ case was the recognition that she received from the televised testimony. She recalled being recognized as the “DNA lady” in an elevator on the first day of her testimony. The recognition from being on television lasted almost a year. Despite the high stakes of her testimony she was able to maintain a cool head and focus on presenting forensic science as the strong tool that it is.
The Simpson case was one Robin’s most high-profile cases, but it represented only one of the hundreds of times she was called on to testify as an expert witness. As she explains, “in the early days, there were admissibility hearings, not in the occasional case, but in every case, in every state. Every place you went there was a Frye hearing. Some of them very contested; some of them would last for days”.
In total, Robin testified in 35 states, a total of more than 250 times. In describing the legal landscape, she said, “if you looked at the legal precedents in each state for allowing DNA to come in as evidence, you would see that there were a handful of maybe 20 to 40 people across the country who did all these hearings over a period of about five years. After that time, most states had some sort of precedent”. In other words, only a handful of people performed all the casework and gave all the courtroom testimony which resulted in the acceptance of DNA results in U.S. courtrooms.
It was against this backdrop that the first International Symposium on Human Identification, was organized by Promega. Robin attended one of the first meetings in Madison, Wisconsin and recalled “Attendees comprised a tiny group of people in a small room. Drinks and some little snacks were provided, and the weather was freezing. At the time there were few opportunities for forensic scientists to get together with others from around the country. Of course, there was no email at the time or cell phones – and so communications from lab to lab would occur within a state but having communications with DNA people from elsewhere was a big deal.” Through the years, Robin has continued to participate in the International Symposium on Human Identification, presenting numerous talks during the general session and helping to organize workshops on subjects from Probabilistic Genotyping to Tips for Courtroom Testimony.
In recent years Dr. Cotton has embarked on a new chapter in her forensic science career. She is now Director for the newly established Biomedical Forensic Sciences Program at Boston University School of Medicine where she is focused on grooming a new generation of scientists. One highlight of her job is the opportunity to collaborate with students. Every participant in her program is required to complete a program of independent research culminating in a written thesis of publishable quality per FEPAC requirement. Students brainstorm with Robin and other faculty to identify a problem in the forensic work flow that can be improved and often collaborate with vendors to develop data that will be used in real world applications.
Not long ago, Sir. Jeffreys, (having received a knighthood for his scientific work) retired from Leicester University. Robin was fortunate to receive an invitation to his retirement party. She took the opportunity to attend the event along with her husband. As she explains, “I just wanted to thank him, without him, I wouldn’t have had a chance to have this career. He was the one that published the information, he was the one who did the research and came up with the idea of using DNA for identification. His work has impacted so many people, it’s a shame he was never awarded a Noble Prize”. Robin relates that Dr. Jeffreys is both humble and without pretense, as she explains, “he’s the real deal, brilliant and nice, that’s Alec Jeffreys”. The forensic community could certainly say the same about Robin Cotton. Her work has impacted the field since the early days of the science and continues today with the mentorship of the next generation of scientists.
Participate in this year’s ISHI in Palm Springs and you’ll have the opportunity to see memorabilia from the OJ Simpson trial provided by Robin and others who were involved. Artifacts on display will include copies of the expert testimony, contemporary photos and RFLP autorads.
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