Mark Desire thought his time at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner would be a year or less while he waited for the next FBI academy. 24 years later, he is now the Assistant Director of the lab and the manager of the World Trade Center casework samples identification unit.
In this interview, ISHI Student Ambassador and PhD Student, Nidhi Sheth, discusses Mark’s career, lessons learned through identification of 9/11 victims, and advice for students considering forensic science as a career.
Nidhi: Hello everyone! Thank you so much for joining us today. My name is Nidhi Sheth, and I’m a PhD student from Rutgers University, and today I have the great pleasure of sitting next to Mark Desire, who is an Assistant Director with the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. He is also the manager of the World Trade Center casework samples identification unit. He’s also an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University (where I go), and he has been currently appointed by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for the human rights National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
So, thank you so much for you time. Just before I get into the interview, I would like to share a small encounter that I had with Mark before this interview. I was interning at OCME and by boss, Dr. Donald Siegel, as kind as he is, I wanted to shadow and see World Trade Center casework samples, and he actually scheduled a meeting with Mark, and he was just so gracious. Mark, thank you. He just told me to come over and we’ll have a conversation, and you actually gave me a chance to shadow the work that you guys do at the OCME for the World Trade Center. So, it was incredible as an intern to be able to be there in that room and to see as to how they process the samples, which was incredible. Thank you so much.
Mark: Yeah, it’s a very special room that we do that work in.
Nidhi: Yes, absolutely. We will get a lot into that in the interview ahead, but before I get into the nitty gritty details about your career, I have a question. When you started your career, did you have a mentor that you looked up to or how did you carve your path?
Mark: I, this is an untraditional career path that I had chosen. I was an undergraduate at Rutgers University… I come from a blue-collar family, so I was the first to graduate from college in my family, and I always loved science as a kid, so at Rutgers I took science classes, and got my degree. I graduated from Rutgers University, and during my time at Rutgers, I attended a career fair where there was an FBI agent there, and I said, “That sounds like a lot of fun. I could apply my knowledge of science and have a great career.” And that was the objective for me, was career as a special agent.
Nidhi: Oh, that’s amazing. How nice. I’m happy that the pieces fall in place with time.
Mark: Yeah, they did. I went back and in waiting for the next hiring phase for the FBI, I had the chance to do some amazing projects in Graduate school and I did some work for the military. But, what it really came down to is that I had several professors and bosses that really gave me great advice on what to do and how to hammer out a great career. I thought that law enforcement would be a great path for me, but I still had that love of science, and once I got my Master’s degree in molecular biology, I still had a year before the next academy. So, the federal recruiter of the FBI agents that I was working with said, “You have a year, so go and do something fun. Stay out of trouble, but go and do something fun.” And forensics seemed like a really cool career, and I had all this DNA knowledge and education and experience having worked in labs. I knew that I didn’t want to work in a lab for the rest of my career though in a room without windows, suited up. I had been doing work with the Army with the testing of the scut missiles and potential biological war heads on there during the Gulf War, so we had developed some kits. That was a lot of fun, but I can’t see a whole career in a lab with no one around, by yourself, so I said I want to take that love and science and apply it and thought, “Let me work a year in a crime lab,” (knowing nothing about forensics). I knew zero about forensics. I interviewed out in LA, Maryland, Jersey State, Pennsylvania State, and New York City. In the library at the university looking at this journal called the American Academy of Forensic Science, and thought, “what is this?” And that’s back when they had jobs posted. Ah, New York City – that must be a crazy place to do forensics, so I applied there. They were hiring entry level forensic scientists in the DNA division, and I went up and interviewed. Dr. Bob Shaler was a director at the time and he hired me, and no one knew (and of course I wasn’t going to tell anybody) that I was only going to be there a year. I thought let me a year experience and a year in New York City must be 20 years anywhere else. And I was absolutely right! And that’s how I got my start. I started working in New York City and I never left. I’ve been there 24 years. And after a year, the FBI called saying to come in for the next segment (an interview or the academy), and I said, “I think I’m going to stay.” I was in my 20’s so I had plenty of time for the FBI, and I was promoted and working on cases, but it was an amazing place to do forensics and it kept my interest. I was a detective working on so many different projects. They sent me back to school. I got my law degree working there. New York City has good perks. Whatever degree you want, we’ll pay for it. You’ve got to go part time for four years, but it was a blast. I loved law school, because it had the science and then learning more about the criminal aspect of it and criminal law, and then 9/11 happened in 2001, and that really defined my career.
Nidhi: Thank you so much. That’s incredible. Did you ever work with the FBI? You did do collaboration projects with them?
Mark: Yes, a lot.
Nidhi: So, ultimately you did the job.
Mark: I have a lot of friends who are special agents and they’re like, “Stay where you are.” No, I’ve never had any regrets or doubts. It would have been a different career and it would have been interesting and fun, and I would have made it exciting, but just to be in New York and that last 20 years of what we’ve been doing has really defined my work.
Nidhi: Absolutely. So if there was one thing that you’d wish to change in your career, what would that be?
Mark: You know, originally, I wasn’t even going to go to college. Like I said, a blue-collar family. My dad’s a marine, and that’s what I planned on doing. In high school, I was going to go into the Marine Corp, and you make these decisions in your life. And I look back now and some time in the military with that experience and that training, that would have been… Maybe that direction… And then Rutgers University afterwards and go to Rutgers later in some sort of program there. Although, knowing myself, I probably would have been career military. I probably would have stayed in the military and not gone onto forensics or New York City, so these last second things that happen, and I don’t know if it’s destiny or for a reason, but you make the most of it and you just keep moving forward. You keep pushing forward. You never give up and you keep pursuing those goals and those dreams.
Nidhi: Absolutely. And I’m sure the OCME is really lucky to have you, because the amount of work and the dedication that you have shown with the World Trade Center casework samples and the amount of planning and the management, so we’re all very lucky. Even me to have a seat with you and talk about your career.
Mark: Yeah, I’ve caused some problems for the OCME over the years, but I am so proud of that agency and working for the city and the people that I’ve worked with over the years. I’m very grateful to New York, and (as I’ve talked about), it becomes a part of you and your family and lifelong relationships. But, yeah, I’m very proud to be a forensic scientist for New York City and the Chief Medical Examiner and the support they give you.
Nidhi: So, as you have been teaching at Rutgers and have been a part of Rutgers as well and working with different organizations, what do you think would be an ideal path for an emerging forensic scientist to take? Because it’s always confusing considering there’s so many different fields out there, but then DNA is the gold standard. How do we decide?
Mark: It’s an exciting time too. When I started, we had 5 positions open in the city, and we had 5 people apply. I think there were 2 schools that had forensic programs way back, but now there are so many opportunities for students and for the forensic students that I teach. My recommendation is to get involved. There’s so much support. I never did, as an undergraduate, I never did internships. I should have done internships and gotten involved in research or any organizations. You know, I just got my degree. I don’t think I knew any better but get involved. Learn about the different disciplines and see. Don’t think you have to do… Oh, I’m going to school for biology or DNA and that’s what you have to do. Absolutely not the truth at all. If you want to cross-train or do something else, we push for that. My DNA team, I have anthropologists and former crime scene and toxicologists working for us and love it. Absolutely, if you want to try something else or go to a different department or division, or stay where you are and just be a part of different teams. It’s exciting. You can do all those things, so don’t think you need to make a decision now. I think forensics is really interesting and you get to apply science. I get to help people and help families. I’m a part of the missing persons team, and to just be able to take that love of science and use it in the pursuit of justice. The students today have wide open opportunities to cross train and do so much.
Nidhi: Yeah, it’s really exciting to get to do forensics, because it’s just a combination of math, biology, and chemistry, so you can actually do like you just mentioned. If you’re a DNA expert, you can still do tox if you know how to use the instrument and have the basic knowledge, which is really nice. What do you usually look for when you hire people for your team? What is the key element?
Mark: Yes, I have done a lot of hiring of entry level scientists all the way up to police chiefs. I’ve been on interview committees and everything in between. For forensic scientists, you look good on paper. You’ve got your degree. You know there’s all sorts of additional training and certificates that you can get – most of them for free online, so take advantage of that. We use a lot of certifications and trainings in the crime lab, and if we see someone who’s already taken this course or are certified in that, it’s wonderful. Getting involved in organizations. Student organizations, the American Academy, coming to Promega conferences as students, making connections. But really the one most important thing is to work on your public speaking. Work on your public speaking. It’s such a big part of forensics, and you don’t really realize that. Undergraduate? I never had any courses on that or opportunities to do presentations. I wish I did, because that public speaking factor, we look for that when we interview. It’s ok to be nervous. You’re being interviewed, you’re going for this big job, but communication, we want to see that, because we’re testing these applicants to see how well they’re going to testify. Are you going to be a natural on the stand? You’ll get questions during your interview, especially for forensic biology, like, “PCR. You’ve studied PCR in school, you’ve taken all these courses on it. How would you explain that to your mom or your little sister or your friends?” It seems like a pretty simple question, but they’re testing you to see how well you can take the complex and make it simple into layman’s terms. Some people have a natural ability or you can tell that they’ve practiced, and that gets you a lot of extra points on those interviews.
Nidhi: That’s a wonderful piece of advice. I’ll definitely keep that in mind.
Mark: So the opportunity to go out and give presentations, and it doesn’t mean you’re not going to get hired, but what we do when we hire some forensic scientists who may be more timid or don’t like public speaking… It’s a big part of your job, and you’ve got to get on the stand, because every time you’re on the stand or in front of the jury, it’s teaching. So, what we’ll do, at least in New York, is our trainees give the lab tours. So, if we’ve got some high school students come in and want to learn about forensics, go ahead and walk them around. Plus, they’re the youngest people that we have and can relate to (they’re just out of college), but they get a chance to talk about what they do. If we get calls from elementary schools and middle schools asking if someone can come out and give a presentation, we send the trainees and give them as much public speaking practice so that way they feel a little bit more comfortable when they’re on the stand or when they’re answering questions.
Nidhi: That’s amazing, because it is necessary, even when you’re in the missing persons department, you have to talk with the families. You have to be very cognizant and you have to be very mindful when you’re speaking with them or asking them questions.
Mark: Yeah, the compassion. That’s something that I never… Forensic science, I knew, ok, you have testify. That’s the reason that I went back and got my law degree. I love the testifying part. I want to learn more about it and have a niche, but then we start to form the family assistance center and work with the families and that’s a whole different skill set. So, we use forensic scientists to meet with the families, but you’re talking a lot about genetics, so the objective as a forensic scientist is to meet with the family and I need to get a DNA sample to identify their loved one, so a kinship and relationships and DNA is very important to understand, because to hold up an identification because you got the relationship wrong, that’s a travesty. You’ve got to return this loved one to their family as quickly as you can, so that DNA side of it, but also compassion. And those kinds of work in a crime lab for a forensic scientist is strictly volunteer. If you go to work, there will be the opportunity to be on all kinds of teams, and something like that, to work with families… Maybe you’ve always had a passion and you’ve always wanted to do that or you have the training or other education, that’s something that you can do once you’re hired as a forensic scientist.
Nidhi: That’s really good to know. So, as you have been involved in a lot of strategic planning for many missing persons casework departments, if someone where to head or start a department related to this, what do you think would be the most vital tool required?
Mark: Most vital thing when you’re putting together a mass fatality team is communication. You aren’t going into it alone. We’re a small agency for New York City. We’re 800. My office is 800, which sounds like a lot, but when you talk about 35,000 police officers for the NYPD or 25,000 firefighters at the FDNY… We’re the largest medical examiner’s office in North America, but we’re the smallest agency in the city, we can handle a lot by ourselves, but with a mass fatality, the very definition of it is that you’re going to need more help. You need to turn to your allies. You need to turn to those other divisions and communication is key. Communication, what I call facetime, with them. So we practice with all the different agencies. Not just the state, but the FBI and the military. Non-profit organizations are so important. I would never go into a mass fatality event without the Red Cross. Without the chaplain. So, all of these government agencies and non-profits working together. It wasn’t always like that. During 9/11, it was very chaotic and we got hit hard by 9/11, but we’ve learned in the 20 years since and it’s a whole separate working environment now.
Nidhi: So, considering that it is so difficult communication-wise, and you have worked with so many different countries as well to help them with their management and planning for any strategies for mass disasters, have you faced any resistance from different departments and how did you tackle that when you are in that situation to get things done?
Mark: Most of the work with foreign countries, when something big and bad happens worldwide, you can count on New York City getting a phone call. This plane went down, a tsunami, a terrorist attack, people need to be identified and mass fatality management, we do get a call, and I would love to be able to do the work for them, but I can’t do the DNA work for you, but we can train you, we can give you protocol, you can come to us, we can send people to you to consult. And we’ve done that a lot, so it’s always been a humanitarian effort and we’ve helped dozens of countries over the years. We share not just DNA protocol, but managing a mass fatality and the computer programs that you’re going to need that we’ve developed and databanking and chain of command and all that structure. Everything you need, free of charge. The only thing I ask is that if you can think of a way to make it better, send me an email please and I’ll apply it to what we know here. The only time that I think it was kind of different was when the United Nations recruited me and brought me down to Mexico to work with the families of victims that were killed by the drug cartels. That was a little eye-opening to me because we weren’t working with the government. The government was… We were in a room with the United Nations, and they started off with, “We don’t trust the government.” And I’m from the government and I’m like, “I thought I was going to be working with the Mexican government. This is eye-opening for me.” The experience was amazing to work with. The work still continues today.
Nidhi: That’s incredible how much work you do honestly. How do you manage your time? Because as a PhD student we get overwhelmed and have to manage our time and we get tired and want to give up. Where does your passion come from?
Mark: Time management is key and probably, at least what I tell my students, the busiest, most stressful time of your career, of your life, is college. Is undergraduate, because you’ve got courses and projects and deadlines and you have support from your professors, but I have teams that I recruit the top people, so I surround myself with folks that are much brighter and more knowledgeable and younger and more energetic than I am. When I was working and going to law school at night, I would get out at 9:30 at night from class and would get a phone call that there’s a crime scene to go to, and I’d do it. I’d get home at 3:00 and get ready, and I’m not doing that so much these days. I have people that would just tear that up and take advantage of that, and it’s great that they do. I see that and they build their career off of that and one thing just leads to another. You know, so much has come from 9/11 that we’ve been able to build off of and improve and work around the world, so it’s just been an amazing journey.
Nidhi: Coming to 9/11, it has been 20 years since the attacks, and I know you spoke a great deal about it as to how you were at the scene and how you went back and helped working with the casework samples. What was one thing that was really eye-opening for you in that moment?
Mark: You know, it was… We were overwhelmed. We had manuals and mass fatality “here’s what you should do during an event like this”, but it was chaos. The amount of samples. I had been injured the morning of, and it was just the sense of we feel like we can make a difference and we were back at work. Because I was injured, I was on crutches. I wasn’t going to work at Ground Zero. I wasn’t going to work the pile. I couldn’t work in the morgue like a lot of my fellow forensic scientists, but the DNA part of it hadn’t even started yet. It was just 22,000 remains were coming to this, and I got assigned to it. That was a big turning point in my career. Being injured and not being able to work in normal locations that I should be, I worked with the families and reference samples, which was something new. The DNA part of it, I understood, and collecting reference toothbrushes and razors, and samples from Mom and Dad, but that point there, because of that injury keeping me from doing my other duties, and building off of that… So, ok, this is what I’m assigned to, so I’m going to do the best possible job, and completely overwhelming… 17,000 reference samples, and how do we manage? New York City, we always brag that we’re the biggest and the baddest. You know, we’re the largest lab in the United States, but we were overwhelmed.
Nidhi: And I remember you talked about the different phases when you were working with the fragments that you collected from the scene and depending on the technology that was available up until now, you keep updating. How do you decide which method to apply and what to go forward with? Because I’m sure you have so many suggestions from all over the world. Because, 500 research papers have been published and what do you pick, because you have such small fragments that you’re working with?
Mark: Yeah, that can be very stressful when you have remains that you may only get one more shot at. Do we apply this technology, or do we wait? And we knew from the very start, because DNA is always advancing and every year there’s something bigger and better comes out. Back in 2001, the most modern techniques weren’t good enough for most of the remains because of what they had gone through with the degradation. And it’s trial and error. It’s learning. I say World Trade Center work, failure after failure, the remains so badly degraded, those techniques, we weren’t getting any DNA from, so ok, let’s go back. Let’s go back tomorrow. How do we improve? What do we do? You’re scientists. Research it. Find out what equipment is out there. Who’s working on crazy samples. I mentioned this. If you’re working on some sort of project, I’m bringing you in. Get to New York, get over here. Let’s see what you’ve got. Try your technique on World Trade Center, and wow, they were able to get DNA where we couldn’t Let’s use that technique. This piece of equipment is able to do things better. Ok, bring it in. We’re very fortunate in New York City to have a full-time research and development, which is unheard of. There’s 197 DNA crime labs in the United States, and how many have a full-time research and development? I think we’re the only one. Yeah, I think we might be the only one. Research and development is university level, right? But when you’re working on these samples, I can’t wait for the technology to catch up at the academic level. We need it here now, so what can we do with the samples that have failed in the past?
Nidhi: Right, which is true, because even as an intern working with Dr. Donald Siegel, it was such an amazing experience and seeing that the entire building is so dedicated to research and casework samples, which was mind-blowing, because I was not doing that great in DNA and then I was told that the entire building works with DNA, so you can catch up, which was really nice. I have one more question. So, as you mentioned, you worked with the United States Army and their biological warfare detection system as a developer. Do you see a biological weaponry causing a threat in the future?
Mark: Always prepare for the worst. We do exercises every year, and part of that communication, we will do exercises in the city to prepare for every type of mass fatality, whether it’s man-made, caused, terrorism, activity, or whether it’s an active natural event, you have to be prepared. And you study terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and you see what it costs for a nuclear device if terrorists wanted to kill a million people in Manhattan. What you would pay for a nuclear weapon compared to say same amount of death for a conventional TNT, this is what it would cost to kill that many people. What about chemical weapons? A gas attack? What about a biological weapon? It’s the cheapest. You don’t need must and you could have a 15 ml conical tube and you’re going to kill hundreds of thousands of people. So yes, we are very much prepared, and we have great detection systems, which isn’t going to stop the event, but at least we’ll know what caused it, and we’ll inform the 60 hospitals in New York City, so we’re a part of that team and that training. But biological warfare is pretty horrible and you could kill a lot of people, and I think that we in New York City are aware of that and are prepared.
Nidhi: And, considering that have been in such straining situations and environments, has it ever affected you emotionally or mentally and how did you cope with that?
Mark: We were all affected by… We’ve worked on a dozen mass fatalities since 9/11. I was able to, early on, see some of my co-workers in the weeks and months after September 11th and bringing in counseling. You know, back then, that wasn’t something that we had and we had to bring counselors in and force your co-workers to talk to them. I think I’ve been fortunate as far as I’ve been able to separate that. I’ve been very personally involved with the families of 9/11. I say it as a forensic scientist, you have to be partial and keep it unbiased and professional. You don’t get involved with the families. You most certainly don’t meet with the relatives. World Trade Center has been a lot different. You know, we get the anniversary and meet with the families and there’s hugging and crying and talking about new technology and how we’re continuing not giving up searching and generating new DNA profiles, but I definitely have good support and a great family. You know, I think I’ve been able to separate that and not bring that home with me.
Nidhi: Thank you so much. One last question before we wrap up. What piece of advice would you have for aspiring forensic students? Considering we are meeting at a conference and everyone is trying to network and look for someone like a mentor. What advice would you have for us?
Mark: I think you’re here, which is wonderful. Most forensic students don’t get out and meet and work on those public speaking skills. Definitely work on those, but just take advantage of all the different programs that are out there and the organizations that were designed for students. There’s a reason they were designed, which is to help you. Part of my job as a professor, and I tell my students this, I’ll teach you the stuff, sure, and the modern techniques that you need to be successful, but also to help you get hired. Nothing makes me happier than at court or a crime scene or some place, and, “Hey, professor!” And it’s one of the 2,000+ students that I’ve had at Rutgers and you’re like, “you’re a detective now or a prosecutor.” Hopefully my boss one day will be a former student. That would be wonderful. But, just get involved. Do what I didn’t do when I was an undergraduate or a graduate student. I’ve got my degree. I’ve got my piece of paper, but there’s so much more to make yourself marketable, because it is very competitive. There’s a lot of schools out there and you know, you might not get hired in forensics, but any kind of science experience, and if you work in the science field for three years and the crime lab you want to go to isn’t hiring, and then when you go to apply (experience is experience – it doesn’t have to be forensic science experience), you’ll probably come in at a higher level if you have work in a research capacity or it can be anywhere. Probably half of the scientists in my division were previously working in science, but not in forensics.
Nidhi: Ok, that’s incredible. Thank you so much once again for your time. It was such a pleasure to sit with you and learn so much about the field and also the casework samples and your career. Thank you for your time.
Mark: No, I appreciate it. Thank you for the invitation.
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