Leading the Lab: Working in a Senior Position in Forensic Science

While all leadership roles come with their own unique challenges, those in management roles in the forensic biology field face the difficult task of reducing backlogs, maintaining quality assurance standards, applying for grant funding, and keeping their staff current on training while addressing current caseload requirements and bringing on the latest technologies. Less than 10% of people are born with a natural ability to lead, so training is of the utmost importance for those in leadership positions.


Pam Marshall, Director of the Masters in Forensic Science and Law Program at Duquesne University discusses some of the challenges that those in leadership roles face, the importance of communication, and what can be learned by working with the next generation of forensic scientists.




Laura: Thank you for joining us for our annual video series from the International Symposium on Human Identification. Today we have Pamela Marshall with us. Pamela, do you want to tell us a little bit about yourself?


Pam: Sure, for the past four years, I’ve been the Director of the Masters in Forensic Science and Law Program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well as the Director of the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law. Previous to that, I was director at a historically black college in New Orleans. So, I switched to academics probably around the time that I was getting my PhD, but I also have about five years of casework experience and I also really love what I do.


Laura: Oh, wonderful. Well I’m so happy you’re here to tell us more about it.


Pam: Thank you Laura.


Laura: Thank you! Let’s talk about your session. You co-chaired a workshop that everyone was buzzing about. Can you tell us what that was?


Pam: Sure. It was titled “You Deserve a Cookie” and it was all about the challenges facing new leaders as well as those who are seasoned that are facing some current challenges with new generations and dealing with different generations across the crime lab.


Laura: Wonderful. Now, I think it was addressing the gap between analyst and leadership and as people move up through the different levels. How did you do that with everybody?


Pam: Yeah, so really, I think our panel all brought different shades and perspectives. Each of us that have had different histories throughout our own experiences in the lab, so really just trying to make sure that that transition between bench scientist to management and leadership roles becomes a seamless transition.


Laura: Yeah, I think that can be hard when you’re used to working autonomously, and then suddenly everything’s different.


Pam: You’re managing your friends, so you have some of that going on. As scientists, we’re never really trained on how to do evaluations and how to have some of those difficult conversations that are so important. As well as just dealing with what is pretty much a common theme across any job right now, which are time, resources, and money.


Laura: Absolutely. Especially over the last year and a half.


Pam: Yeah, budgets have just dried up and with people looking at the work from home perspective, some might be tempted to leave. So, other issues that have cropped up are re-motivating and trying to boost morale amongst your ranks.


Laura: Absolutely. What are some unique challenges that people face? What are they sharing with you?


Pam: Again, really some very common themes. I think that the major ones were motivating staff. We really tried to get to the heart of why all of us are in this position, which is to serve. So, Julie provided a great overview of servant leadership and what that truly means. Our mission at Duquesne is really simple. It’s serving God through serving students, so that they, in turn, can serve others. I believe, really, at the heart of every crime lab, you have that same type of mission. We are serving others every single day, so really just trying to find the joy again. I’m in an environment where my students help me find that joy every day. They’re so excited and so hungry for a job in forensic science, so I’m able to see that every day. I think that once you’re in a lab setting doing that bench science every day, that joy becomes a little more difficult to find.


Laura: That’s a really beautiful way to look at it from a mission-centric and the joy of peace. I really like that a lot. So, behavior and communication are extremely important. I know you did a little DISC work with the group. How was that?


Pam: It was wonderful. I’m not a DISC expert by any means, but about 99% of all of our problems can be solved with communication. So, really just trying to see and understand what our behavioral styles are as well as the behavioral styles of others. So, keeping in mind that there’s no one behavioral style that’s the best or right to have (we need all four of those styles to have growth and diversity within in our own team cultures). But really making sure that, as you’re on this trek to understand your own behavior, you’re helping others find their voice, because that’s what’s really going to drive the future within your own team.


Laura: Absolutely. So, I’m sure that people shared a lot. Were there any themes that you found or anything that you found to be surprising?


Pam: Nothing really surprising, I think. Again, this is why the whole panel was there. We’re really comfortable and familiar with some of these things that we’d see quite a bit. I think the biggest surprise was that we assumed, and wrongly so, that the majority of forensic DNA leaders would probably be more of a type D dominant behavioral style, whereas the majority of our group attending our workshop were the conscientious, C, group. So, you’ll see them around this week wearing little yellow stickers. We tried to brand them a little this week, but that was the biggest surprise. Overall, we tried to divest them of the fact that we weren’t going to be giving them free time this week. We weren’t going to be giving them free money. Those are the biggest two things. So, really trying to come to terms with the fact that you’re never going to have enough time for everything, but you really do have to make sure that you take time for your employees, because they’re the ones that you’re serving ultimately. If you serve your staff well and those who are under your leadership well, they will in turn take care of the victims and the suspects and the customers that come into our everyday lives.


Laura: That sounds like a wonderful approach. Did you get into mentoring and peer group support at all?


Pam: I have. So, I think one of the biggest takeaways we were really trying to offer this group, not only from the perspective of “hey, we have so many in attendance – start to build your own network”, but really trying to remember who you really envision as one of the best supervisors that you’ve had in your career and really trying to emulate some of those same qualities. Looking back and seeing who provided that encouragement? Who provided that support? How did they deliver clear and defined expectations for your job? I think that when you look back, we all have someone that comes to mind immediately that we really enjoyed working for and working with.


Laura: Wonderful. Anything else about the class or the workshop that you want to tell us about?


Pam: We just had a wonderful time. I was really honored to be amongst the group. I learned from every single presentation as well, so I think that’s also the goal, is to tell people that this is a life-long learning process. We’re not all perfect managers by any means, but really just trying to help (once again) those that are really new to management as well as those facing some of the challenges that come with the day to day life of this job.


Laura: Yeah. How did you get interested in the field? I’m always curious.


Pam: In forensic DNA specifically?


Laura: Yeah


Pam: You’re not going to believe it, but I was actually a pre-med student. I’d already taken my MCAT and really had a life-long dream of working with children and being a pediatrician. In 1994, we had the OJ Simpson case, and it was the first case in my lifetime that had been televised from start to finish, the entire court process. I joke with my students now that this is pre-DVR. Pre-Netflix. Pre-Hulu. Pre-anything. We had the old VHS tapes that could only hold about 8 hours of content. So, I would literally race home between classes every day and watch Henry Lee talk about blood on socks. I really fell in love with even the discussions on RFLP, believe it or not. But, really just kind of changed the track of my career and I have no regrets. I haven’t looked back since.

Laura: Wow. You know, we had Robin who testified on the DNA evidence in the trial one year, and it was fantastic to talk to her.


Pam: She’s wonderful, and she’s a wonderful role model that I have in my life as well.


Laura: Wonderful, very good. Do you want to talk a little bit about your work? What’s surprising, challenging, what you’re working on (if you can share), that type of thing?


Pam: Sure. I think that the academic side’s a little different, but we still face some of the same challenges. Do we have enough time? I currently have 155 students in my program, so we’re 4+1. We’re the only 4+1 program in the country. So, my students come in as freshmen, stay with me for five years to earn their master’s degrees in forensic science and law. The best parts of my day are always when I get to see my students and mentor them, and I think we’ve got some really exciting research, not only in the field of DNA, but because they cover every discipline, I’m actually mentoring some pathology projects with 3-D printed hyoid bones. I’ve got a student that I’m mentoring that’s doing ghost gun work, so she’s 3-D printing some ghost guns as well as just the various DNA projects that we have going on, so keeps the challenge going. I wear a lot of different hats, which is fun for me, and I prefer to have a life where nothing gets monotonous and I love that every day challenge.


Laura: The 3-D printing sounds fascinating.


Pam: It’s amazing, and what I love about those specific projects are those were student driven. The students came to me with those on their own. The hyoid project actually came out of real life with Jeffrey Epstein and these battling opinions on suicide versus homicide, and he came to me and said, “hey, I don’t understand why no one understands fracture patterns and hyoids. Can we do something?” And I said, “Let’s try.” And we don’t know if it’s going to work, but that’s the other great thing about research.


Laura: I think that’s what makes it so fun.


Pam: And that’s what I tell my students. Have fun with it, and we don’t know if it’s going to work or not, but even a wrong answer is going to take you in a right direction.


Laura: Right. You can’t learn unless you fail and fail and eventually succeed.


Pam: Right, and I think a lot of us, if we look back, will realize that we’ve learned a lot more from our failures than when we succeed.


Laura: Yes. You could probably go back to some of the first videos and you could see that. What advice would you give to students or someone thinking of entering the field?


Pam: Oh gosh. To have fun. To keep those questions and just to know that you can make a difference. I think when I was their age, you get the tendency to believe that everything’s been created. There’s  nothing new. You see these wonderful vendors that tell us about these products they’re creating, and you wonder where your footprint is going to be on this profession. So that’s what I’d tell them. There’s enough room in the world of forensics and forensic DNA, where we can all have our own piece.


Laura: Oh, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much Pam. Last question – have you ever been to ISHI?


Pam: I have.


Laura: I thought so.

Pam: Yes, several times. What I love about ISHI, aside from the fact that it’s so hyper focused on DNA, is that you have this wonderful blend every year of bringing in the pioneers of the field as well as these new students. New graduates who have been provided this opportunity by their labs to come to their first ISHI and that excitement every year keeps me excited.


Laura: Wonderful. Any thoughts on this year, since we’re on day threeish?


Pam: It’s been wonderful. I think that looking back on lessons learned yesterday, all of the vendors that come and provide their expertise on the new and what’s coming. What our current approaches are, but really what’s going to drive the future of forensic DNA is so important for all of us to keep our eyes on for sure.


Laura: Thank you so much for sharing your experience and about the workshop. We really appreciate you taking the time out. Enjoy the rest of the symposium.