From Classroom to the Lab: Building the Next Generation of Forensic Experts in a Post-COVID World

Pamela Marshall, the current director of the 4+1 Master’s program at Duquesne University, shares her extensive experience and perspectives at ISHI, a conference she has attended over 10 times. Pam delves into the challenges faced by forensic students, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing the importance of building their confidence and resilience. She highlights the necessity of preparing these students for real-world professional interactions, such as with law enforcement and juries.

The conversation also explores the critical need to bridge the gap between academic institutions and forensic labs, suggesting the use of student research at conferences as a potential recruitment tool.

The importance of proper onboarding and professional development in forensic labs is discussed, with a focus on personality fit and team dynamics and the significance of integrating new hires into teams and nurturing future leaders is emphasized.

Lastly, Pam touches upon the advancements in DNA technology, especially those post-9/11, and anticipates the future focus of forensic science to be on the development and legal performance of new technologies, such as forensic investigative genetic genealogy. This interview provides a comprehensive overview of current trends and future directions in forensic science education and practice.




Laura: Welcome, Pam. Thank you so much for coming back and being willing to talk with us here at ISHI 34. We have our largest crowd ever. It’s a very exciting year. And before we get started and talk about your workshop, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself for our new viewers?

Pam: Certainly. And thank you, Laura, for having me today. Um, I’m Pamela Marshall. I’m the current director of the 4+1 master’s program at Duquesne University. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been to ISHI, but it’s well over ten probably at this point, and it’s one of my favorite events every year.

Laura: Wonderful. We love having you here. So, you work so much with forensic students, and these are the professionals of tomorrow. Can you tell us a little bit about what that’s like and what you’re seeing?


Pam: Yes. So, the students are the best part of my day. I love spending time with them and just learning what their career goals are, and just helping them kind of get started on that journey. Uh, it does get a little bit more difficult every year. We’re certainly seeing the impact of the Covid pandemic on them, um, and just their confidence levels and resiliency, which was part of our presentations this morning. So, it was good to hear, you know, those ways that we can continue not only on our own self growth and our self-journey, but also to help that in the in the next generation of forensic scientists.


Laura: That’s amazing. Um, yeah, what are some of the challenges? Of course, Covid, I think everybody is just readjusting to things. The world has changed and everyone’s having a harder time. But I can’t imagine having been a student during that time and then coming through that. So, what are some of the challenges you’re seeing? How are you addressing it?


Pam: Yes, and I think, you know, John Collins, who was part of our workshop yesterday, said it best that none of our panel of speakers during our workshop yesterday disparaged this generation because every generation learns from the environment that they’re growing up in. Right? And I think for this particular group, we’ve seen that growth in social media. So, they’re much more confident and comfortable speaking over this platform, either in a text and an email and really trying to emphasize that that doesn’t work in forensic sciences. You have to be a team. You do a lot of things as a team. You’re not, you know, one stop shop where you’re going to take a case all the way entirely through. And we have to really interact with law enforcement, with lawyers, with juries. And so, it’s really just taking the time to make sure that they’re comfortable not only in their own skin, they’re comfortable with the material that they’re learning, and then they’re going to be comfortable, essentially teaching that content to someone else, i.e. the juries that they’ll one day, you know, face. So, it has become, very challenging. But I think we’re up to the task, and I think there’s a lot of great laboratories that are going to assist in that further development of them once they leave the education setting.


Laura: You know, you are not the first person to bring this up. As we’ve been talking, it’s so nice to hear about preparing some of the forensic professionals of tomorrow to understand what it’s like to talk to a jury. That’s something that I feel like we’re, you know, is really becoming a focus now. Whereas before maybe there was a class or two, it’s, you know, certain programs and, and people really weren’t ready for it. What are some ways that you think we can bridge the gap between academia and, you know, the forensic labs and other pieces of the puzzle? What advice would you give?


Pam: Yes. So, I think because we are all so mission centric and this is our mission, right? It’s not only to take care of the victims. And of course, you know, the public – they’re our consumers for forensic scientists, but also realizing we’re not going to be around forever. And so, if we want to make sure that this, this world of forensic science and forensic DNA is going to be in the right hands, we have to take the time to foster that communication. And what we learned out of yesterday is we all have this stakeholder role. Students are a powerful stakeholder, and I don’t know that they’re recognized as a stakeholder in forensic science in the criminal justice system. So, I am going to be doing all I can to continue to foster those communication avenues between the labs and the academic programs. I told our workshop attendees yesterday that if they are looking for good recruits, the first place they should be looking is at the poster presentations. These are students who have been doing research for a number of years. They’ve got this great platform where they’re going to show you that research so you can test them automatically on written and oral communication. Right? And they’re looking for jobs. So, if you know and I don’t know that that really had soaked in for some of our attendees yesterday. But by bringing that up, these are all part of these conferences. And I sometimes think some lab people think, oh, that’s time where I maybe don’t necessarily need to go to the posters. I can just spend some time with our vendors, but at some point, they’re going to be hiring in their lab. And these are great young women and men that are looking for those connections and those positions.


Laura: You know, this is where our worlds collide a little bit. Since I work on the media side, I have to tell you, the veteran reporters who are the best in the business always ask me about the posters, and I have a hard time getting younger journalists to take a look and take that seriously. And they’re the gems. That’s where it really happens. How about onboarding? Then let’s talk about what happens when they leave school and they have their first job. What can people do to help onboard and really bring them into their new role?


Pam: Yes. So, we started yesterday’s workshop, just kind of doing a round robin and having everyone introduce themselves and what information they hope to glean from yesterday’s workshop. And Julie Sikorsky from Palm Beach County covered the onboarding portion. And her message was powerful. It’s not necessarily hiring for the academics, hiring for some of those skills that you think, oh, that’s what the labs are looking for. They do a lot with, you know, that personality fit. Can they fit in with their current people? Will there be a nice communication and harmony with the people that they’re going to be working with?


And so Julie gave some nice information on interview questions and things that might help to do a deep dive into other pieces of that student’s life that don’t necessarily come across on a resume or during any other time that you’re going to be connecting with that possible new hire, other than some of those questions. And sometimes it’s outside of the purview of some of those people that are doing the hiring. Because we learned yesterday that some of these individuals are very boxed in by either HR policies or by their own laboratory settings. And so, some of the things that I even shared as an educator to look out for, they might not actually have that opportunity to ask those questions. And so, it’s kind of getting to it from a lot of different ways and angles. But I do think there were a lot of things that that all of us can work on. And I think that was clear from yesterday’s communication and conversations.


Laura: Well, that’s a very interesting angle to bringing HR into it so that they can understand what pieces are important so that a new hire feels comfortable. What about leading and managing them then?


Pam: Yeah, so so that was very, very well done by Ray Wickenheiser, who is the director of the New York State Police System. He really talked a lot about building that confidence and making sure that these new hires feel like they’re part of the team. Yeah. You know, really listening to them, making them feel connected, making them feel like they are at home and so that they’re not just seeing, you know, the supervisor or the technical leader when there might be problems, but really kind of building in that time to foster those connections immediately. I shared this example yesterday that the Assistant Director of the Maryland State Police Lab, where I started my career as a forensic scientist, would always stop me at lunch or in the hallway and ask me, you know, have you purchased a house yet? Have you met a guy, you know, and it was all a way of showing me she really wanted me to settle down in Maryland. She was looking at me for, for the long term. Right? And showing students that that’s powerful. And I still remember that, you know, 20 years later that she was really fostering that connection with me and getting to know me.


Laura: When someone makes a connection like that and they remember something and can do a callback and you have a real discussion and people are leaning in and listening, it’s a huge difference. And it really determines where you end up. Absolutely.


Pam: Yeah. And where you where you stay, where you want to stay. Again, we heard is the problem. Right? So that they’re getting people landed. And then, you know, there’s a lot of turnover happening. So, it’s the retention, which we deal with a lot in academia as well. But it’s the retention of those hires. Yes. That needs to be the focus as well.


Laura: Yes. Well on the student side and as they’re entering the workforce, how do you help them build the confidence you mentioned earlier? Be able to assert themselves in a positive way that’s going to have a good result.


Pam: Yeah. So John Collins kind of did our course wrapper yesterday with really giving us tips for building that authority because these are not just they’re not coming in just to be the trainees, just to be the technologist. They will one day be that future leader. They will end up being the technical leader. They will end up being the laboratory director. So, it’s really important to foster that and show them where they can kind of find that inner strength, build their skills to have that authority, build their expertise. Those are all ways. I mean, we all deal with imposter syndrome. Like, you know, I dealt with some of it yesterday. I’m sitting next to Julie, Ray, and John. Do I belong in this group? And, so we all deal with that every day, I think as imposters. So not only kind of driving it out of ourselves, but teaching students how to find their voice. And I think with today’s generation, they’re so good with technology, they’re so good with creativity. So, tapping into that, you know, if you need some research done on the next platform for DNA, why have one of your trained analysts do that research? They’ve got other things to do. They can do that casework. They can go testify. That new trainee, that will make them feel immediately like they’re part of the team, like they’re important. They’ve got this role. I’m going to do research on this next platform. Let’s see. You know, can I reach out to vendors? Can I make this happen for my own lab? That’s an immediate sense of that gratification and that sense of worth. And so, I think that that’s really powerful.


Laura: Absolutely. And also, Pam, you absolutely belong in that group. And what a fantastic group that you had. Big takeaways. What would you say are the top things you would like people who weren’t able to attend or thinking about attending in the future?


Pam: I think if people didn’t have the opportunity to attend, to really start thinking about how they can make connections with their local universities, even if they’re not accredited, see what type of outreach they need. I also think transparency in your training programs, in your SOPs. If you don’t have them, you know, fully available and accessible online, which I know is difficult to do, share that with those local universities. There’s 21 master’s programs in the country. Think about if all 21 master’s programs had access to all of those different SOPs around the country, to all of those different training programs around the country, that we could either then implement into our own coursework, or that we can share with our students so that they can say, okay, I’m looking at Houston or I’m looking at Palm Beach, or I’m looking in California. What is my first year going to look like? What are my first couple of years going to look like? I think students have a fear of the unknown. That decreases that fear immediately that they can see, okay, I can expect to be doing this training program for a year or two, a year and a half. Right? So, it helps them. And that’s what we look for, right? We want to know what that that first little bit of time is going to look like in a new environment. And so, I think by doing that, the other big powerful takeaway was during John’s segment. I hadn’t even really thought about it. He had everybody take a picture of the of the PowerPoint slide. 25 is the new 18. And it resonates, right? Because their brains aren’t developed as much as they could be, right? And again, it goes to the social media piece and that isolation during the pandemic, all of those things play a role. So, I think it’s really about if you’re doing the hiring, if you’re part of HR, if you sit in on an interview making sure that at some point you’re meeting that new hire where they are.


Laura: And that makes mentorship all that much more important.


Pam: Yes, yes. So, we talked about that too, with a peer cohort model. So, having them come in and already have someone who is either starting around that same time that can be doing that training with you, they become a built-in support system. They’re getting that in college. There’s a lot of programs that have this peer model. And so, to continue that avenue into that new position person, I think they immediately have that connection. They’re going to be, you know, in each other’s weddings. They become the best of friends because they’re going through that grind together.


Laura: And connection, wow. That really helps mitigate the fear of change we all have. We all want a little bit of knowledge of what’s to come. Yeah, yeah. Anything we missed from that fantastic workshop that you want to make sure the audience knows about?


Pam: Oh gosh, no, I think, the four of us have been doing a couple of workshops now. I think this was our third workshop together. We have some ideas for, for maybe a presentation or another workshop idea for next year. I think, onboarding could be a full day workshop just on onboarding techniques and tips. And, but what I love is that the attendees always bring so much. It’s not necessarily about the panel of speakers. It’s about that interaction. It’s about their trust in this environment. We try and create a safe place so that they know they can share these ideas, they can network. They’re all going through the same thing. We saw that yesterday. There’s parallels and commonalities and all of the problems they’re facing. And so sometimes it’s just nice to know that you’re not alone in dealing with some of these things. But we’re always grateful for the attendees and their feedback every year.


Laura: Well, we are very grateful that you guys come back and present with us again. You know, along those lines, we always like to ask what makes ISHI attractive as a place to hold a workshop or attend? I mean, you’ve been with us many years.


Pam: I love just coming, interacting, seeing people I haven’t seen in a number of years. I’ve already run into to some that I’m wanting to spend more time together with this week, learning about new things. I think everything on the horizon with genetic genealogy, with the new platforms, seeing all of our wonderful vendors that come back every year and spending time with them not only for the swag, but also just to see them and see if they have any ideas for research. I’m always looking for new ideas for research as well. And regardless of what city we’re in, it is all about that connection and just seeing old friends making new friends. I heard that this year we’ve got 300 new attendees. So, 300 people, that’s a third of probably the registrants have never attended an ISHI before. Let’s make sure that they come back next year.


Laura: Absolutely. Our largest show, 300 new attendees all in person. It’s a remarkable way to connect with everybody. Absolutely, yes. And next year is the 35th anniversary. So should be bigger than ever. We’ll have some special things planned. And we’ve been asking everybody big questions. So, take your time to answer. But over your career, since we’re coming into 35 now or over all of the ISHIs you’ve attended, what do you think has been like the biggest change, the biggest surprise, something that’s really, really stood out to you?


Pam: I think for me, and it’s probably just the time frame of when I got my master’s degree in forensics, is seeing how much we have changed in terms of the DNA technology and how a lot of it came out of 9/11. So, this terrible event in our country, you know, we just had the anniversary two weeks ago, and how this country pulled together and how we realized we need people to do this very difficult task. And, um, I just sat next to Tom, who’s the director of that lab in New York and offered my congratulations on their two new identifications as well. There is no closure yet, you know. And so, keeping in mind the research avenues, the how much we make a difference in victims lives, how much we make a difference in their families lives. It’s very powerful. And so, I don’t think we can talk about growth in our own industry without that parallel of what that means to the families. And again, that’s just part of the time frame for me. I think I’m definitely very, very sensitive to the 9/11. But I definitely think mitochondrial DNA, um, that the growth and the databases, recognizing that we need different databases for family reference samples, all of those things. And I think that that’s been an extreme focus. And as it should be over these past 20 years.


Laura: It’s been remarkable. I mean, both in terms of the technology and what we’re able to offer on the other side, as you said, to provide assistance, comfort, closure, if that makes sense for people. I know that can be a loaded word, but whatever helps on the other side. Yeah, yeah. This is speculative? We won’t hold you to it. But what do you see for the next five, ten years? What do you think’s coming next?


Pam: Ah, that’s an interesting question. My students always ask about that. You know what should they expect to face in terms of technology? We are definitely in the technology era with data storage and everything. I think genealogy is going to continue to be the focus for the next at least five years. It’s very powerful. I think there is some work that needs to be done in terms of how it works, how we make it more transparent,  how it’s going to do and perform in the legal system. So, we’re seeing some of those discussions now. But I think that’s where the focus is going to be. And just continuing to hone these, these avenues and explore what type of information we can get out of these new technologies to continue to benefit not only cold case work, but our current case work.


Laura: That is very well said. Yes, yes, well, I’m excited to see what comes next. I enjoy this so much and we’re so honored to have you back. Thank you for doing the workshop and taking time out to speak with us too.


Pam: Thank you so much for your time today, Laura.