From Biology Teacher to Forensic Expert: A Conversation with Dr. Mike Coble

In this interview, Julia Wang, a student ambassador at ISHI 34 in Denver, Colorado, converses with Dr. Mike Coble. Dr. Coble shares his journey from aspiring to be a high school biology teacher to becoming a renowned forensic scientist. He recounts his initial intrigue with DNA testing and subsequent academic pursuits, leading to his work at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory and significant contributions to forensic science. Coble emphasizes the importance of being open to opportunities and discusses challenges in forensic research, particularly in DNA mixture interpretation and probabilistic genotyping. He reflects on his career achievements, including his work on mitochondrial DNA and mini STRs, and offers insights into maintaining work-life balance and the value of conferences like ISHI for fostering collaboration between researchers and practitioners.




Julia: Hi ISHI. My name is Julia Wang and I’m one of the student ambassadors here at ISHI 34 in Denver, Colorado. Today, I have the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Mike Coble. Thank you for joining us, Doctor Coble. Thank you. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself and your background?


Mike: Sure. So, I grew up in North Carolina and did not immediately go to college right out of high school. I took some time off and then decided to go back to school. And so, while I was in college, I fell in love with teaching. So, I decided I wanted to become a high school biology teacher. So, I majored in biology with a minor in education for my undergraduate degree. And then I taught high school for a couple of years, and during my first year and second year of teaching, there was a science teacher convention that was being held in North Carolina, and I went to that convention. One of the talks at the convention was from a forensic scientist from the North Carolina lab, and he was talking about this DNA testing. And so, it really, you know, got my interest up. I thought, this is really great. This is sort of a perfect career where you could do science and then you could also teach to the jury. And then right after that, when we started school the next year, a former friend of mine from when I was in high school was accused of killing two young women. So, he was a serial killer and they used DNA testing to convict him.

And so, my students were like, what is this DNA testing, you know? And so, I really became very interested in it and decided to go back to school, went to George Washington University in DC to get my master’s degree. And I was ready to go into, you know, the field to work.

And so, I had interviewed for a job at Cellmark, which was in Germantown, Maryland at the time, and I was sort of waiting to hear about that position. And while I was waiting, my mentor, Dr. Tom Parsons, said, “Hey, what are you going to do when you finish your master’s? You know, I’ve got this PhD project and, you know, are you interested?” And I’m like, “yeah, absolutely”. So, I decided to continue on and work at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, AFDIL. So, working at AFDIL and going to George Washington to get my PhD, and then the rest is history. I, you know, was very fortunate throughout my career to have been associated with some very good scientists along the way that have really helped form me as a scientist. So that’s pretty much it.


Julia: That is an amazing journey. I didn’t know that about you. Well, I mean, for graduate students, undergraduate students in forensic science like myself. Can you give us a little perspective? When you were getting that master’s in forensic science and then later the PhD, did you see yourself as being this researcher with hundreds of papers and citations and running ISHI workshops? Was that in the cards?


Mike: Never in a million years. You know, I feel like Doctor Strange, you know, where he’s calculating the 13 million different possibilities, and that was not one of them. I had no intention of ever becoming a research scientist. Like I said, my path, I thought I would just, you know, get my degree. And then my hope was to go back to North Carolina and work in the lab and make that my career. And, you know, the opportunities came forward. So, one piece of advice I would give to students, you know, be open to opportunities that may present themselves. You know, you’re young, you’ve got time, you know, and you may find that you may fall into something that you really love. It was, like I said, never my intention to be a researcher and publish and present and host workshops and be invited to give talks. But it worked out that way, and I’ve really enjoyed the path that I’ve taken. And I like I said, I owe a huge debt to those people, the mentors and people who helped me along the way.


Julia: Yeah, that’s great advice. In a parallel vein, do you have any advice for researchers who maybe don’t have direct contact with a crime lab, and how they could stay relevant to what the crime lab really needs?


Mike: Yeah, that’s a great question. So that is something that, you know, we often see is that a lot of times researchers are really focused on creating new methods or new techniques or new discoveries that may or may not translate into something that’s practical for a crime lab. So, I highly encourage researchers to outreach, to talk to your crime lab (so your local labs) and honestly, a conference like ISHI is a perfect opportunity for the practitioner and the researcher to come together and start talking about collaborations or start talking about, you know, here’s a serious problem that we’re seeing now and forensic DNA testing. And it sure would be nice if we had a way to do x, y, z. And so, I think it can provide a lot of inspiration to researchers to be able to put that down and maybe into a grant proposal and get funding.


Julia: Yeah, I mean, I saw in real time and your likelihood ratio workshop, communicating with these practitioners who say, I don’t know how to explain this to a jury and these kind of contexts in mixture interpretation by probabilistic genotyping, do you still see these hurdles, either with the research or with crime labs?


Mike: You know, I think that, you know, we talk about probabilistic genotyping a lot of times, like it’s just something brand new. But the reality is, is that probabilistic genotyping for mixture interpretation has been around for over a decade now. And I think we’re at a point where, you know, I know there’s always going to be challenges. There’s always going to be something that someone’s going to say, oh, well, you know, we need to worry about, you know, currently the big worry is relatives. We need to worry about relatives and mixtures. And so, there’s been a lot of research to show how a lot of times we can’t overcome the fact that relatives share DNA. But there are things that the software may be able to do, but especially when you have imbalance with the relatives that it may be able to separate them out. But there’s always going to be something next. Something’s next, the next big thing. I think we’re at a point where probabilistic genotyping for mixtures is going to be here to stay. And I think that the more and more practitioners and researchers can be more comfortable with how the software works, especially those that are presenting in court of how it works and how to communicate the outcome (the likelihood ratio) is something that really is a focal point as opposed to these you know, sort of issues of the day that are popping up.


Julia: Yeah. Having been in forensic science long enough to see these trends of issues come and go, are there personal moments in your career that you felt like were a win that was satisfying? Like, this is here to stay?


Mike: Well, personally, for me, as you know, again, being a researcher, one of the I think one of the things I’m really proud of. There are a few things I feel like I’ve done that have helped the forensic community. And one of them was, you know, when I got my PhD, it was in mitochondrial DNA work. And so, I had very little STR experience. So, I felt like I needed to expand my horizons. And I was very fortunate to work with John Butler at NIST as an NRC postdoc. And at the time, Dr. Butler had, you know, had been working on mini STRs and those were shortening the repeats, shortening the amplicons, so that for CODIS loci. And so, we had been talking and he said, “You know, we really should do some work with non-CODIS loci, loci that aren’t part of the CODIS core. And so that was what I worked on when I went to NIST as a postdoc. And I’m very proud that three of the markers that I helped to characterize as mini STRs, non-CODIS mini STRs were adopted by, first, the European Community as part of their core. They were looking to expand from SM plus to the next generation multiplex. And so, they included three of those markers. And then later, CODIS in the US expanded the core loci to include three of those markers. So, I’m very proud of that contribution. And, you know, the work that I did with mitochondrial DNA was at the time when I started my project, my PhD project, there were maybe 3 or 5 entire mitochondrial genomes that were sequenced and in GenBank, so there were not even hardly a handful.

And so, I worked on a project that we were able to generate over 500 complete mitochondrial genomes that were very high quality. You know, of course I had lots of help along the way, but for the portion that I did for my PhD, I’m very proud of those sequences.

And then, you know, again, working with the community, I recognized very early when I was starting to work more with mixtures, that there was going to have to be a software solution to help with mixture interpretation. So, while I was at NIST, I was very honored to have been invited to New Zealand to take a look at STRmix when it was maybe a couple of years old at the time. They had been, you know, it’s been developed. They were starting to use it. And myself and my friend Steven Myers from California DOJ, and then the US Army lab, USACIL. They were also invited separately. We weren’t there at the same time. But we were able to sort of get a first look. And I realized like, this is going to be a big deal. And so, I started focusing a lot of energy in trying to introduce prob gen again, not just me, but others as well, and introduce probabilistic genotyping into the community. And then it goes along with prob gen or the likelihood ratios. So that was also another thing that, you know that that um, I feel very proud to have at least helped maybe a little bit in getting this probabilistic genotyping into the forensic community.


Julia: Those are definitely very honorable achievements that not many people have a claim to. In a sort of flip side to this, with research, with its difficulties and challenges. Is there anything that you wish you had known sooner? Maybe you save you some time or heartache?


Mike: Well, you know, again, I think that a lot of times when you have opportunities that present themselves that, you know, it’s a good idea to grab them and at least try. But I think if there was one thing that I wish I had some insight or some additional information or additional training… You know, the thing about, I guess as you get into forensic science and as you progress through your career and you get older, there’s this expectation that now you’re going to become, you know, a supervisor, and now you’re going to become, you know, a lab director. Now you’re going to become a technical leader. And, you know, there there’s a lot of challenges that I feel that a lot of especially graduate programs, you know, managing people, courses like how to manage people, how to how to do these kinds of things. Those are things that I never really got. I mean, I did take some management training when I was at NIST and, you know, have read some books along the way. But that’s something that, you know, I never really anticipated. I wish I had known when I was, in my master’s program that, you know, it might be a good idea to start thinking about this because that’s usually the path that you’re on as you get older, as you get into your career.


Julia: When it comes to maybe the less enjoyable, more stressful aspects to the job, is there a way you mitigate that with what you do outside of the lab?


Mike: Well, it’s very tough. I mean, you know, as a researcher, you’re often working longer hours and you’ve got grants that you need to write. You have papers that you need to publish. And of course, if you’re managing people in the lab, there’s a constant, you know, keeping everyone on track. So those things have, you know, have been not necessarily stressful. It’s just that sometimes, especially with grant proposals where you have a deadline and you’re really you may get a little overwhelmed. It’s trying to balance your work and life. It does become a little bit tougher. I think there’s some people who think that, oh, academics, they’ve got it easy. They just, you know, show up and teach a class now and then and then, you know, they got the summers off and it’s not always the case, but yeah, I try to, you know, try to keep some of that work life balance as much as I can.


Julia: My final question is really about ISHI. So, you’ve been attending ISHI for a while now. When you look back, are there any memorable moments or stories that happen here at ISHI?


Mike: Well, I do have to say. I mean, there’s a certain amount of comfort in knowing that at least once a year, you’re going to be in a place where you’re with your colleagues and your friends and sometimes friends that you may not have seen in a couple of years. Sometimes friends from Europe or Asia that are able to make it. And so, there’s always a chance to reconnect.

But I also have to say that ISHI has been a great place where you can connect and not only connect with people, but also present the research that you’re doing. And like I said earlier, get that feedback. Ask your colleagues that are working in the field, like would this be helpful? Would this make sense, that kind of thing. What are some of the challenges that you’re facing and what could research do to help those kinds of things as well?

And I have to say also, one of the things about ISHI is that there’s always just amazing keynote speakers that have been part of ISHI over the last, you know, 20 some years that I’ve been attending. I think I was at probably about the eighth meeting of ISHI, which was, if I’m not mistaken, maybe it was later, but it was in in Arizona, I remember, but my first ISHI meeting. But over the years, I, you know, I’ve been honored to have met people like Kirk Bloodsworth, who was the first man on death row who was exonerated with DNA, who was the keynote speaker, gave a very touching, very heartbreaking to hear his story and then hear his redemption.

We also, one year ISHI had Alec Jeffreys as the keynote speaker. So he was, you know, hobnobbing with everyone. And I think this was when ISHI was in Hollywood, one of the years we were in Hollywood. And I remember I was heading back to my room, and I was going by the pool to get to the to the elevators. And I turned the corner and there’s Alec Jeffreys just standing there, and I’m just like, wow. And he like, stood there and talked to me for like 10, 15 minutes. Just, you know, I was asking him about his pathway and some of the challenges, like, why did he, you know, why did he not stick with forensics? You know, he was telling me like, I had a court case and at the end of the court case, I felt like I didn’t even like myself the way that the attorney was, was hammering on him, and he said, yeah, I probably don’t need to do this. But I think that’s the benefit of ISHI is not only just the community of scientists that are together, but it’s also the community and the fellowship of scientists. But it’s the ability to see these big names and people, maybe not even necessarily in forensics, that are keynote speakers that really add a lot.


Julia: Yeah. Well, thank you for then passing on your wisdom to me and to our ISHI viewers. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.


Mike: Thank you. Julia, it’s been a pleasure.