James Robertson: Reflecting on a Career that Shaped Forensic Science

Dive into the remarkable journey of James Robertson, whose career has spanned continents and crucial developments in forensic science. From his early days harnessing fluorescence in protein synthesis in Munich to his pivotal role in launching the diagnostics and forensic programs at Applied Biosystems, Jim’s story is one of curiosity, innovation, and serendipity. His work laid the groundwork for the use of STRs (Short Tandem Repeats) in forensic science, forever changing the way we approach crime scene analysis. At the FBI, Jim spearheaded the development of rapid assays for pathogens, enhancing the bureau’s ability to respond to biohazard threats swiftly. As he approaches retirement, Jim reflects on the evolution of forensic science, from its nascent stages at the first ISHI conferences to its current role in solving cold cases and aiding in human identification for cultural and social justice. His insights into the importance of automation, software for analysis, and the ethical boundaries of forensic science offer a glimpse into the field’s future. Join us as we explore the legacy of a scientist whose work has not only solved crimes but also expanded the possibilities of forensic technology for future generations.


Laura: Welcome, Jim. Thanks. Well, it’s so nice to see you. Thank you so much for joining us at ISHI 34. This is our annual video series that we do every year to talk to both our presenters and attendees and learn more about them. And we’re very honored that you share with us and are willing to take some time before we jump into some of our questions. I’d love to hear a little bit about your background for any viewers who don’t know you.


Jim: Okay. Actually, I got a chemistry PhD, and afterwards I went to Munich, Germany, for a postdoc. And the group there was working on fluorescence. They wanted to measure using biophysical approaches, all the various steps in protein synthesis. And that meant we had to label transfer RNA and develop very, very pure active proteins and ribosomes. And at the end, I was there 14 years and I developed a lot of fluorescence experience and working with RNA. Then I went to UC Santa Cruz, worked for Harry Noller to learn to sequence the RNA, and I taught them what I knew in Munich. And at the time I was applying for jobs, and one came up by ABI, Applied Biosystems. They wanted somebody with fluorescent experience to start their diagnostics and forensic programs. And I got the job right away. I was very lucky. That’s luck. You know that that job was available at the time, and I had the experience to go with it. You know, it just happened. It was lucky, I’d say.


Laura: Yeah.


Jim: And so, the first thing I worked on in forensics at ABI was Venter’s variable number tandem repeats. And then after a couple of years, I switched to STRs. Then I went all over the world, you know, with the STRs. And then we built Taqman, and we built the 310 I was working on with those teams. So that was a lot of fun. We built the instrumentation to go with it, and then we built software to develop Oligos. I was on that team too, and then I was at a training with Bruce Budowle in Australia.

And we worked at night, so there was a lot of work to do. And so, we had pizza and he told me, “I have a job at the FBI, why don’t you apply for it?” And he told me what it was. Bruce has a global vision of forensics, and one thing that we lacked at the FBI at the time was a way to measure the growth of bacteria. And we had a new requirement for a new unit, the hazardous materials response unit, to measure, for example, what is in that suspicious white powder? Well, in the old days, you would have to culture it out and it would take days, maybe to get an answer.

Bruce said no. We have to work much faster with the police, the mayor, the first responders, the people that are sequestered in the building. They want to know what it is so they can go home. We can get moving. Forget it. Do they need a vaccination or not? You know, those are questions that had to be answered quickly. And so, I developed rapid assays for pathogens working at the Navy because we couldn’t do it on a marine base. They were a great team in Silver Spring, and we developed things that the CDC didn’t have. And then later we gave it to the CDC, and we worked with the English, the Porton Down. It was it was a really good experience. So, we had then the capabilities of measuring the bacteria within a few hours and trying to find out what it was.


Laura: That’s remarkable.


Jim: That’s how I started my first job and whatever, how I got there.


Laura: Incredible start to a very long and distinguished career. How long have you been at the FBI?


Jim: I started in 96, July 1996, and I’ve been there ever since. You know this. I’ll be retiring at the end of September.


Laura: Wow. Oh. That’s amazing. What an incredible career. I want to get more into the experiences you had. But I also heard that you were at the first ISHI that was held in Madison, Wisconsin, with some pretty extreme winter weather in December or the first conference when DNA was, you know, nascent technology.


Jim: I was actually at the second, number two, but there was no number. Number two is in Madison. And we did have a lot of snow, an unbelievable amount of snow. And so that wasn’t a good time to have the ISHI meeting, because who would want to go to Madison in a cold like that? And then I went to the meetings in Scottsdale and really enjoyed those. And then it branched out, you know, because it got bigger and bigger and Scottsdale was too small to handle the crowd. So, yeah, I’ve been going to ISHIs since then, I guess, you know, pretty remarkable.


Laura: We’re coming up on 35 years next year. It’s just hard to imagine.


Jim: I’m looking forward to going as a retiree. I think I’ll go to that one.


Laura: Please do. We would love to have you go to that.


Jim: It’s a great venue down there in San Antonio. That hotel. Fantastic. Beautiful. So that’s a big experience. Everybody going there?


Laura: Absolutely. Yeah. Since you have a lot of experience with the symposium, what has that been like over the years? I mean, you’ve seen so many changes, I’m sure.


Jim: Well, we started out, like you said, in Madison, a very small group of specialists.


Laura: And were there any students at the time?


Jim: No, no younger people there. And most of the people there had experience in the laboratory setting up, for example, volunteers and Donizetti was a big thing at the time. And everyone heard it was developing a database for that. So, I worked with Doctor Cassel from Japan, and we made a little database. And then later, I was lucky enough to go to Japan and train him on how to do the automation for the STRs. I mean, the STRs at the time.


Laura: That’s incredible. You’ve had a lot of really exciting travels as you’ve worked on different projects.


Jim: Yeah, I’ve been lucky also in that area because I traveled all over the world with ABI, and I lectured on STRs like a rock star going from one city to another. After the lecture, they’d put me on a plane, and I’d go to the next city. And, you know, it’s just there was so much interest in it.

And then in Singapore, they wanted to know all they could learn about DNA technology. And so, I lectured there a lot, and it was great that people would be sitting on the stairs. And in Portugal, the same thing. It would be people sitting on the stairs. They would be full because there’s this quest for knowledge for DNA, you know, human ID and all that. What you can do with DNA technology.


Laura: You know, given all of that experience, what changes in forensic science and the technology around it has have most surprised you?


Jim: What surprised me is how this DNA, human ID, is being used. Now, in the beginning, it was just to solve crimes, but now we’re using it for social, cultural things like the University of North Texas, they have that human trafficking program. I never thought… You know, that’s great idea. And that’s another thing that Bruce came up with.

But, rapid DNA, my unit chief got $23 million from Congress to develop a new technology for forensics. What do you need? We need rapid DNA. And so, I went. I was on a group and with our team at the research unit, and we briefed the people in headquarters about rapid DNA. Oh, we don’t want that. We just validated the 310. Don’t start talking about something new. We don’t want to hear anything about it. So, we farmed it out to a number of contractors. ASU was one of them. Another was Ingenix. There’s a spin off company from UC Berkeley, and Tom Callaghan did the one in Boston. The ANDE, I wasn’t involved in that one. We put seed money in, and the agency helped us with the rest of it, and we got it started and built these programs up.

So now that was supposed to be used for booking, but it’s being used all a lot now. For example, at border crossings, and there’s a poster yesterday on Ukraine. It’s been used in the battlefield. It was used for the victims in Maui. It’s used for a lot of things that we didn’t think it’d be used for, so that was a surprise.

Another thing, we had a lecture on the first day this year on reparation of the bones to the Indian tribes. I never thought it would be used for, you know, forensics would be used for that. That’s very great. You know, a brand-new type of a cultural application. That’s very good for us. It’s not just murder, whatever. We do a lot of things with the human ID, human DNA, technology.

The other thing is solving cold cases. I never thought of that when I was doing that sort of thing. When we were developing them, it was never even brought up, you know, that we could possibly use forensics, human ID for cold cases. And now it’s a big thing, and it’s working very well.


Laura: You see new cases breaking every day. It’s really remarkable. Thank you. That’s an incredible, incredible summary. When you first began working in forensic DNA, what processes were most cumbersome or complicated? I mean, because things have changed. I think it’s interesting to look back.


Jim: Differential extractions, they were very difficult and tedious. You had to be really good at the bench. And sometimes, even when you were careful, you may mix in the male fraction, let’s say. Now we have, for example, a kit from Genomics Sperm X that allows that manual procedure to work very well, and very little manual work to do. It’s really set up for that. But we also have the semi-automated methods using cube and so on. And so that’s eliminated those problems. T is eliminated.

Another problem was pouring gels. You know, it was so tedious, and I was very good at pouring gels. But sometimes I put a gel on a sequencer and it’d be like green when I looked at it. I’d have to rip it off, make another gel, and it was a time when you didn’t want anyone to use your plates because they were clean. You would clean specially and you hid your plates, you know, and you were very happy when you had that clean gel on the sequencer. Then of course, I sprayed myself. I put the acrylamide in the gel and then sprayed it on my face, and I had to go under the sink and wash my eyes. But, there was a lot of stress using gels. And then I did silver stain as well as fluorescence. And the silver stain is dirty to work best. And you spill on the floor. The black floor. But I learned to make a very white clean, no background. And it took a long time to do that. But it was stressful.


Laura: I bet. I mean, thinking about how much time and care and like you said, you know, good splash up and having to make sure those plates are clean. Certainly the advances seem to have made it a lot easier. Yeah.


Jim: I mean, cleaning a plate. And getting ready. That would take an hour of your time, you know.


Laura: So that’s a lot.


Jim: It is, you know.


Laura: Yeah, definitely. Which one of those advances do you think has been the most pivotal for the industry?


Jim: Automation. And that’s not just instrumentation. It’s also software. So, I was very good at analyzing profiles. I could sit in front of a screen for eight hours, not get bored. But when I looked at some of the results my analysts had and when I compared, we had differences. So, it depended on your experience and your patience, let’s say. And that’s no good. So, we needed software that would handle that. The analysis of the profile. That was a big, big, pivotal experience, let’s say in forensics to have that software.


Laura: Tremendous leaps in automation and computing power and the way things are processed, that’s a great answer. We’re going to ask kind of a nearly impossible question, but we like that it’s speculative. But, you know, where do you think the field is going having seen the trajectory so far? Like what do the next 5 or 10 years look like?


Jim: To answer that, I’d like to recall a former ISHI. The Scottsdale meeting with Henry Lee. He gave a lecture after the O.J. Simpson case. And basically, he started off with we messed up. Well, the analysis was done. The gels were fine, interpretation was fine. But what happened? Chain of custody. So, no matter how well you work in the lab, there could be something else that’s going to mess up the case. And what I think that’s very important is what OSAC is doing. And the American Academy getting these standards. If we all follow the standards, then the chance of that happening is much lower. So, I think that’s a great thing.

The other thing we’ve all heard about are SNPs. People that are non-forensic, they’re looking at SNPs for diseases. The tendency for alcoholism. We can never go there. So, we need to keep the trust, especially when science itself is under scrutiny by the public. So, we cannot look at, you know, things that are there to tell you a lot about the person’s behavior or future behavior. We just cannot. We have to have guidelines. We have to have rules to not do that, to make sure nobody makes one mistake, and then it’s bad for the whole community. So, I think that will be one of the things that OSAC will deal with. And, I trust them. We have to keep the trust of the community. That’s very important.


Laura: I agree. You know, working on the media side, too, you absolutely see that. You’re right. I mean if something happens, you know, you can lose that trust. Even if it’s not… It doesn’t feel like that’s fair, you know, when there’s just everybody learning as we go. But those standards make the difference. Yeah.


Jim: And SNPs can tell us so much that we’re not using, you know, we need to leverage that information, especially for investigative purposes. You know, it’s incredible.


Laura: I did my own sequencing. And just looking at the various pieces, it’s fascinating.


Jim: Well think about an eyewitness describing the suspect or possible suspect. If there’s some DNA left behind, you might be able to analyze it completely different in the phenotype than what the person described. You know that would be very helpful, so, you know, it all fits together. But again, we have to be very careful what we do.


Laura: Absolutely, yes. Do you have any plans for retirement that you’d like to share?


Jim: Actually, I’m going to be baking bread.


Laura: That sounds wonderful.


Jim: I have a couple of cookbooks on bread baking. I’m going to start that again, and then I’ll be traveling in Europe. You know, I’ve been all over Europe, but there’s things I haven’t seen yet and want to live in Italy for a month or so and, you know, stuff like that in Venice. You know, just travel. Not too far anymore, but travel in on the continent.


Laura: That sounds wonderful. Travel is a passion of mine. I did a bit of travel writing and made it to 54 countries. I wanted to hit 100. We’ll see if that happens or not. But now I think, like you, I’d like to go back to some places. Yeah. Venice particularly. What do you love about Venice? It’s such a great place.


Jim: I’ve been there 25 times or more, and that’s where I can make decisions. It sounds silly. A city that has all those tourists, but I see it pretty well itself. The architecture of the beauty there. You know, it’s just the Venetian life and the lagoon and all that. That’s what I see, what I like, and somehow I’m able to just shut out the tourism, the tourist places and doesn’t bother me. Somebody says, oh, it smells. It never smells to me. I don’t smell it, you know.


Laura: It’s not the same thing, and I disagree. I think I saw the beauty too. And the Venice Film Festival is amazing and it’s open to everyone, unlike other ones. There’s just so much to do. It’s just wonderful there.


Jim: And they have the Biennale every other year.


Laura: That’s fun. Favorite I’ve been to. I’ve been to about five of them. They’re just amazing. Yeah, amazing. The artists are incredible.


Jim: You see different interpretations from each country that’s present there. So many ideas and wow, how did they get that idea? You know, that in itself is not just what the image is, but how do they get the idea, you know?


Laura: Yeah, it’s fantastic. I think you couldn’t pick a better place than Venice. It just makes me want to go plan a trip right now. Yeah.


Jim: And as far as Venice, we had a meeting there where I met Bruce and a number of others, and they came in to Piazza Romana. First, they wanted to eat pizza, so I took him to my favorite pizza place, and then we walked to the Guggenheim Museum. And, my colleague Keith Munson had the first instance of CODIS, and he had one of those old-fashioned carry ons, and it was chained to his wrist. We went to Guggenheim and they wanted him to take that off. No, I can’t take it off. So, for Keith sitting outside, we forgot him. And then I wrote, oh my God, Keith, this access we had to rent out and get him and leave and go back. And then I took them to their hotel center.

But, you know, there was another forensic thing. Interesting thing. We did the STRs for the international community. So, as you know, not just here in America, but it was where we expanded that.


Laura: Yeah. It’s incredible, what a story. Like the first CODIS is like chained to him. And he couldn’t go in and.


Jim: He demonstrated it. You know, how the concept and how it worked. It was very heavy in carrying this thing. And he was one of the developers. He was the first guy to work on developing the software.


Laura: Amazing to have been part of all of this. Yeah. How about any fond memories of of ISHI that you want to share?


Jim: Well, there’s several actually. The best one was the Reba McEntire concert. It was in the evening. Is she in Nashville? That was great. Then the boat ride. And then, you know, in Phoenix, the western town. And they had they made steaks and they had a country western band. I like that. Some people say, oh, it’s kitsch. But no, I enjoyed it so. And I’ve been everywhere. But still, I get enjoyment out of that. And I like the venues, you know, like the Gaylord. It’s beautiful in there. You can walk around the trees and sit down and exchange ideas and stuff, and you’re not outside. You’re inside and under good weather conditions. And then there’s the one, like I mentioned, in San Antonio that you’re going to have the next ISHI meeting at, and that’s really a beautiful hotel, a great venue.


Laura: So excited for the 35th and San Antonio. It’s going to be amazing. Yeah, yeah, that’s one thing, you know, of course, people come to be together and exchange ideas and talk about the field, but having that Wednesday night event, you know, it’s something completely different that nobody expects. It’s like a nice release. It’s a hard job that everyone is doing. So, it’s fun to have a little bit of fun in the midst of it.


Jim: And, you know, like the aircraft factory in Seattle, there’s always something of interest, you know, because we’re scientists, you know? So anyway. But yeah, I enjoyed that.


Laura: So yeah. Yeah, the museums are interesting too, to see everybody. Yeah, that’ll be fun. Fun tonight actually. Yeah.


Jim: Yeah. I haven’t been to that museum although I’ve been here many times.


Laura: Yeah Denver has usually been an airport stopover. So, I’m very excited to see something of it. So, we’ve covered a lot of ground. Is there anything we missed that you want to share and make sure the audience knows about?


Jim: I just would recommend to follow your dream.


Laura: That is such beautiful advice, Jim. I don’t know if you could say anything better. I feel like you have lived. Do you feel like you’ve lived your dream? It sounds like you have.


Jim: Yeah, from the get go, I wanted to travel. And so, for me, going to Europe and a postdoc in Germany, that was great because it was very hard to get a postdoc fellowship there. And at the time, for a chemist, that was one of the best you could get. And that led to my future career at ABI and then coming to the FBI. So, I was very lucky. That’s it. I’m not that smart, but I’m lucky.


Laura: I don’t know if I believe that. I feel like it’s smart and luck is a smaller part, but so it is.


Jim: You just keep working hard. When I was developing the skills at ABI, I’d go home to eat and I had a couple of kids. I played with them, and then they’d go back to work in the lab. No pay or anything. I just did it to get them out because we didn’t… We’re tired of waiting, waiting, waiting. So, you know, I was trying new experiments and all that stuff. And then like the 310, you know, we were developing that at the same time. And so that was very exciting at time. But you just got to you got to work hard and follow your dream and say, you know, yeah, don’t listen to anybody else. Just listen to yourself.


Laura: I don’t think there’s any better advice we could end on. I mean, that’s the most inspirational message. Follow your dream. And if you’re passionate about it, go for it.


Jim: That’s it.


Laura: Yeah. Yeah. Well, we were so honored that you took time out from this symposium to come and sit down with us. We really appreciate it.


Jim: Well, I’m humbled that you asked.


Laura: No, we’re we’re humbled to have you. Thank you. Thank you so very much.


Jim: My pleasure.