Nothing taught the forensic DNA community, arguably the world, more about mass identification than the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001. This singular event solidified DNA’s role in the identification of those who could not identify themselves. The use of DNA analysis in this, and other like events, has become a pivotal and expected tool in identifying victims when traditional identification methods like fingerprints, dental examination, or X-Ray are not viable.
In 2012, the first Rapid DNA instrument was released for commercial use. While there was, and still is, a hesitancy to implement this technology, both early and recent adopters can attest to the success of its use. One of the obvious advantages of this specialized technology is its mobilization capability, making it ideal for use at mass identification events. The 2018 deployment of Rapid systems to the Camp Fire in California led to the identification of 58 victims. More recently, Rapid DNA was used successfully by the Miami-Dade Police department in 2021 to identify victims of the Surfside condominium collapse.
In this interview, we talk with Julie Sikorsky, Forensic Biology Unit Manager at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Crime Laboratory. In August of 2020, they went on- line with a Rapid DNA program. Their goals were three-fold: 1) incorporate this technology into their regular casework cadence; 2) establish a Rapid DNA infrastructure within their service area; and 3) develop a plan to mobilize this technology should a need arise.
Julie discusses these goals in depth and discusses a 2021 collaboration with Marshall University’s Forensic Science Center regarding the development of a mass identification guidance document specific to forensic biology laboratories. The goal of this collaboration was to develop a blueprint for the mobilization of Rapid DNA that could be adapted and used by any Forensic Biology Unit.
Laura: Thank you for joining us for the annual video series from the International Symposium on Human Identification. Today, we are very lucky to have Julie Sikorsky with us. Julie, we have talked before, and I’m so happy that you’re back.
Julie: Thank you.
Laura: Can you tell us, for people that haven’t watched the other videos, a little bit about yourself and your background?
Julie: I can do that. Something I do know. My name is Julie Sikorsky and I’m a Forensic Biology Unit Manager at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Crime Laboratory. I’ve been there for 20 years. 10 years as a Senior Scientist and then 10 years now as a manager/supervisor.
Laura: That’s amazing, wow.
Julie: It’s flown by, I have to say.
Laura: We love seeing you pretty much every year. It’s wonderful.
Julie: This is my 7th or 8th ISHI that I’ve been to. At the beginning, I wasn’t able to go. It’s a coveted meeting. It always is. It’s a little easier to go when you’re the supervisor to get permission to go, because you give it to yourself.
Laura: You have a fascinating talk this year and it’s about mobilizing a DNA lab for rapid response in a mass casualty event. So, that’s definitely something that’s in the news, and the more rapid DNA becomes available, developing protocol and systems is at the forefront. Can you tell us about it?
Julie: Well, we’ve, as a sheriff’s office forensic biology unit, we’ve been interested in rapid for many, many years. We, I don’t believe, ever thought of it’s application to mass identification events. So, what we did, is we’ve been following the development of rapid, and we’ve been working with and collaborating with multiple people as it’s kind of been a thought thing and then it actually went to manufacturing. We’ve worked with a couple of different manufacturers and helped that technology really develop. And then finally when it was ready, we did purchase it. So, in that purchasing, we didn’t quite know what we were going to do with it, but we’ve invested so much time in it’s development, that we really wanted to kind of kick the tires, especially to help the forensic community and the other laboratories really understand a place for it. So, we did get a rapid, I want to say back in 2018, and finally went online with it in 2020. That was one of the good things that came out of the pandemic was bringing rapid DNA online for casework.
Then, one of the three things we wanted to do with rapid, other than bring it online and help our other constituents who also wanted to bring on rapid, was to capitalize on its mobility and see what we could do with it. And in the wake of the Camp fires in California and the Surfside condo collapse in Miami, this really needed to be a priority and we needed to kind of move it along.
It had been a slow roll for us, because it’s one of those things that is a need, but it’s a need that’s lower on the priority list. So, when we were exploring the opportunity to bring on rapid DNA, and we knew the instrumentation was there, we wanted to see how other agencies were implementing it. We are known, somewhat, as early adopters. We’re not the super early adopters, but we get in there pretty early. So, I actually took a trip out to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and they were using rapid DNA and they have their own database, so we really learned so much from them and they were really so gracious in sharing their lessons learned and things that they’ve already done.
So that really helped us solidify how we were going to implement rapid DNA and at least give us some direction. So when we decided to look at rapid DNA for mass disasters, that was one piece of the puzzle, and we knew that mobilizing a laboratory is a huge undertaking. Huge undertaking. I mean, it’s a mind-blowing operation to move DNA processing outside. How are we going to look at this? So, we did reach out to quite a few people. There’s a lot of information out there on responding to DVI events. I call them mass identification events, because there’s so much more that you can do besides an event where there’s complete tragedy and death. There’s also identification of individuals from human trafficking stash houses, or we’ve seen those semi-trucks with migrants coming in and identification of those individuals. So, there was a lot of opportunity there.
So, we utilized resources in the community, but we also reached out to Marshall Forensic Science Center. They had a resource we didn’t have, which are called students, and I was hoping that maybe we could get the manpower we needed to really take a project like this on. We’re focused on casework and being able to mobilize and respond to an event like this is a need. It’s a need for every forensic laboratory, but it’s quite low on the priority list right now. Our priorities now are let’s stay up and running and do regular casework, so by reaching out to a partner that could help us, I think that that really helped us to bring this across the finish line.
So, we did that about a year ago and got a top intern named Dana DeVito, big shout-out Dana, she was fantastic and she really developed and changed and modified and embraced all of the available resources and kind of made them our own and also made them really accessible to the community should they want to set up this same sort of response.
Laura: It’s amazing to see all the collaboration. I think that’s fantastic, and especially you reaching out, the support that was offered, involving students who are the future of what’s going to be happening. For our viewers who aren’t forensic scientists, what is the difference between rapid DNA and other DNA technologies.
Julie: Rapid DNA, as the name implies, is quite rapid. Whereas a traditional DNA workflow may take anywhere from, I don’t know, a half of a day if you’re really speedy and it’s an easy sample and you’re only doing that sample, to a week or more, depending on the technologies that you have. Rapid DNA is sample in, answer out. It takes about 90 minutes on either platform, because there’s two main manufacturers right now, and you essentially put a swab into a cartridge or a chip and you put that into the instrument and 90 minutes later, you have a DNA profile and hopefully a good one.
Laura: That’s amazing. I think before, in some of the shows like CSI, it looked like things were happening very quickly, but that was not the case, and then suddenly the technology really started to move forward. Rapid DNA, I feel like we’ve been talking about it since maybe a little before 2012, but that’s when a commercially available product became available?
Julie: That’s correct, yeah.
Laura: What do you think the hesitancy has been for some places to implement it?
Julie: I think several things. Change is hard. Forensics is not known as that discipline that’s like, “hey, yeah, this is the newest and greatest thing.” There are those individuals that will go and take it and feel it out for us, which is what we appreciate, but we’re a cautious bunch. I think the vision of how we would use that and implement that into your laboratory is, I think, the biggest hesitancy with rapid, because you really don’t want to have it as… You don’t want to get it and then figure out what you’re going to do with it. You want to make sure you have an idea of how to apply it and getting it for one thing – so if you’re going to get it for emergency cases to run a standard or whatnot, seems very limited. So, that’s why we really give a lot of thought to the scope and how we would implement it in casework, but also have it in the event we would need to mobilize it to a mass identification event.
So, it was a two-prong approach and hopefully by showing others that it can be used in that manner, and it can be used successfully in that manner, we will be able to encourage other adopters and say, “come in, the water’s fine.” It won’t be for everyone, but it certainly is a very useful and valuable tool.
Laura: Absolutely. Even when we began talking about it, it sounds like it could really change some things and nobody wants to have a mass casualty event, but rapid identification can really change what that looks like for everybody involved in the investigation and the families. What are some of the drawbacks as well the benefits? How do you balance both of those?
Julie: Well, some of the benefits… Let’s do the positive first. It’s rapid. It’s fast. Our field has had to push for efficiency for so long, and hopefully something that can help us reduce backlogs and one of the applications in our laboratory is to run standard-only cases. So, when we have, say a case like a sexual assault kit and it’s negative for biological material, we would use rapid just to run that suspect standard. And do a modified analysis, which means that an analyst interprets that profile and then that profile actually goes into CODIS. So, in a way, it does help with our efficiency, I would say. At least in our hands.
It also, other than the fact that it’s rapid, it’s very portable, which makes it very amenable to our mass identification events. They both have small footprints, both the ANDE and the Thermo Fisher rapid ID have small footprints and are able to be mobilized, so that really is an advantage.
You can run lower template samples as well as high template samples on both instruments. You just vary the cartridge or the chip that you use in there.
As far as drawbacks, right now with the current instrumentation, is the sensitivity. These instruments are not meant for crime scene samples. They’re not meant for mixtures. This hopefully will change in the future. I really am a proponent of this technology and I think that there’s a place for it. At this juncture, traditional DNA analysis is not going to go away, but with this, you have to be really responsible with the certain sample types that you put in there. Again, no mixtures, because the dynamic range is limited in this instrumentation, so you really can’t deconvolute or break apart those mixtures very effectively.
Additionally, those lower template samples, there is a limit and you don’t want to put all of your faith in the instrument, in case you don’t get a profile and you could have gotten a profile using traditional analysis.
So, those are the benefits and the drawbacks to these instruments. I’m sure I could list more, but those are kind of the basic ones that I see. All of them just still make this a very effective tool.
Laura: Absolutely. I’m sure then, problematically, you probably want to put everything in place so that everyone knows when it’s appropriate to use which technology, depending how large your sample is and what you’re going to be doing with it. I believe your program has three major pillars that you mentioned. Can you talk about those?
Julie: Yes, our rapid DNA program, which started in 2020, has three major pillars. The first is to integrate rapid DNA into our casework flow and that’s where we’re really going to see running standard-only samples. When we’ve got a profile that was generated traditionally, and we’ve got a person of interest and law enforcement goes and gets that standard, we can quickly put that in the instrument and compare that to our unknown sample and say, “yes, this is a match. Go get an arrest warrant.”
We’ve used it also to confirm off-ladder alleles. Because we’re a Fusion laboratory for our traditional DNA analysis and our RapidHit IDs use GlobalFiler Express, so we’re able to confirm those off-ladder alleles.
We use them to confirm CODIS confirmations all the time. When we get that secondary standard in from an individual, we can quickly confirm that CODIS hit.
So, that’s the first pillar, is integrating it into casework.
The second pillar is being a resource. And, as we’re aware, these instruments can be marketed to anyone. So, we, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, services over 30 agencies in Palm Beach County. Any one of them could decide to get rapid, so we want to make sure that we’re familiar with the technology. We understand it’s limits, we understand it’s advantages and we serve in an advisory capacity. At this juncture, we’re not going to be serving as a reach-back resource, because that would be a lot of agencies to have to support on this type of technology, but we certainly want to be informative to them and we want to really advise them of the advantages and the limitations, because law enforcement thinks that they can put anything in this instrument and get these amazing results out and we’re just not there yet.
The other part of being a resource is when our state decides to go to booking station collection and upload, that we are able to be a resource to my own agency. I do know that Florida is getting there. Louisiana was the first to go online with that and Florida is almost there. So, I think that was really important to be that sounding board for the agency. They’re a little timid of the technology even though it’s incredibly easy to use. And I did forget to mention that the ease of use of this is probably one of the major advantages, other than it being super fast.
And the third pillar is this mass identification piece. Being able to take all of the learning and the testing and the validation that we’ve done and move that outside of the traditional laboratory environment and make sure that we’ve validated procedure to do that. Validated protocol so that we can actually take those samples run in the field at a mass identification event, and if they are CODIS-eligible, get those in the database.
Laura: You know, when you talk about a mass casualty event, obviously the tragic events of 9/11 affected us all deeply, and then you see 2012, more commercially available rapid DNA. In your opinion, do you think that event shaped the speed in which the technology moved and people being interested in it?
Julie: I’m not sure. I know what came out of 9/11, hands down, was the identification that DNA was needed in these events. They’re still using DNA to identify individuals to this day. There have been multiple publications on lessons learned, and it has really helped push the DNA field forward. I don’t know. I know the thought of miniaturizing DNA analysis existed prior to 9/11 or was definitely on the forefront. I can’t comment to whether or not it really pushed it forward, but I think it definitely underscored the importance of DNA analysis and then when some of these mass identification and mass disaster events started happening, it just really became an organic solution for that. It’s like, hey this makes sense. This is portable. It’s rapid. Why don’t we do that? And maybe I’m limited in that I personally, when I heard of rapid, was not the first thing that came to my mind. That hey, we can bring these out to mass identification events. It was more like, oh, I can have a speedy solution in my laboratory to help efficiency. So, I think it all kind of worked together and came about in the right way that it needed to come about. Certainly we learned a lot from 9/11 and it certainly underscored the importance of these events, so in a way, it all comes together.
Laura: Absolutely. One thing that I was thinking about, you’ve talked about your three pillars, so you really did touch on some of this, but for someone who’s thinking about developing a program or just beginning, how did you come up with your goals, your project structure. How did you make it work?
Julie: Are you referring to specifically the rapid program in general or just the mass identification piece?
Laura: I would say both. If that’s possible to answer?
Julie: So, rapid in general was a lot of fact-finding. It was going out and visiting other laboratories that had it and using other’s experiences. So, when we started looking at it, again, it was a slow to adopt type thing. The instrumentation hadn’t really been locked down. There was a lot of changes going on, and, admittedly there still are, so we kind of just put feelers out. And once we say that there was a clear path forward, we started small and we proceeded with caution. So, we only looked at the casework piece first. We wanted to get comfortable with that and we only brought one instrument online the first time and we’re only looking at buccal reference samples. I have a slide in my presentation that’s how do you eat an elephant, and it’s one bite at a time. So, we didn’t try to do everything at once. It was methodical. Also, it was a change management method, because if you change things too rapidly, you get a lot of pushback, so we really were methodical. So, I would advise others to take a similar approach. A lot of headways that we made, we’re certainly willing to share anything and everything that we’ve generated. PBSO.org, our agency website, you can actually go on there and see all of our manuals, all of our validation summaries, all of our forms. Anything you want to see is on there, so it includes our rapid validation write-ups.
It also includes, so to circle back to the mass identification piece and how we looked at that, again we reached out to Marshall University and then brought in an intern and then really slowly again began developing these documents and these plans and then that culminated in an exercise and then that culminated in additional feedback. But, my point on this, anything that we created with regard to that event, and the planning to stand up this kind of mock event we did, we’ll also be putting forward-facing on our website. So, other agencies and laboratories that think this might be of interest to them, which I highly encourage, can just go pull those documents down and really just personalize them for themselves, because there’s really no one-size fits all.
I also highly encourage that they just get the conversation started within their laboratory. Not necessarily rapid in general, but how they would respond to a mass identification event and what resources are available to them. So if they cannot get rapid technology, maybe find a lab in the state or in the area that does and see if they can collaborate with them to help bring that technology to them and maybe they can form a relationship.
But I think it’s really important that we know now, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when this is going to happen, which is completely unfortunate, but with the number of school shootings and other horrible things that are going on in today’s world, this is an absolute resource.
Laura: Absolutely. I really love that you have everything online for people to access and my next question was going to be are there checklists or procedures? How do you go about this? So the fact that you’re sharing that as well as there are people that within their own state to reach out to, I think that really helps to develop a program, because change is hard.
Julie: Change is hard and developing anything from scratch. That’s where we were stagnant. Again, it was how do you eat an elephant? It just seem so big and so unattainable, so if you start small, and you start doing that, you know, it really helped having another resource too, because my focus is in running the lab and making sure everybody has what they need to do casework and none of us had the ability to have a lot of focused time on this. We realize that’s the issue in all labs, so even if it’s just getting that conversation started with your own county or local government or agency. And, honestly, when we looked at this, while we did reach out and involve individuals, this was a forensic biology only event and our scope was simple. Move DNA operations out of the traditional laboratory and make sure it worked. By doing that, we took a project which seemed so overwhelming and we made it palatable. We made it something like, ok, that’s our expertise. We don’t know what sample collection is going to look like. We don’t know what family assistance center is going to look like. We don’t know who’s going to get notified. We don’t know those pieces. Those are other pieces of the pie, but we just know our own slice. So, let’s focus there. Let’s do what we do best and get that ironed out and then we’ll figure out the bigger piece. Now we do have a seat at the table at our agency’s mass identification planning committee, which they didn’t even know we existed prior to us kind of knocking on doors and saying, “hey, do we have a tent? Do we have generators we can use? Do we have a portable air conditioner?” And then they were kind of surprised and they said, “yeah, you know DNA would be really useful at some of these events.” So, getting a seat at the table and starting that conversation was huge.
Laura: I think that’s one of maybe the best pieces of advice that I’ve heard, because that’s true. With that coordination, if nobody really knows that there’s another resource out there and an opportunity to work together…
Julie: And that I think was really the most surprising piece, because we even reached out to our medical examiner’s office and said, “hey, how do you guys handle when you have a mass identification event or a mass disaster? How do you handle this?” And they just looked at me like, well, we bring the bodies here. And I said, “no, no, when you need to deploy and you need to set up something in the field.” And they were like, “what are you talking about?” And then all of a sudden, some of the people that we met with were like, “Oh, we did this exercise so many years ago.” And the sad part was they really hadn’t given it too much thought in so long that I feel like we did them a service, because it got their conversation started again. And then they reached out and said, “if we have one of these, what types of samples do you want?” So, now we have more a collaboration going on within the county on what we’d do, so if God forbid, this happens, we are that much more prepared. And again, we’re not going to be able to go out there and just be seamless, but at least we’ve gotten the conversation started and hopefully we’ll be a little bit more resilient than if we had gone out there kind of half-blind and knowing there are these pieces, but not really knowing what to do.
Laura: Absolutely, it elevates all efforts and a rising tide with a full boat. Perfect. Well you were also part of a workshop and I heard a lot about it as I was walking around the conference yesterday. Can you tell us what that was about.
Julie: It was called The New Superior: A Better Way to be the One in Charge, and the focus of it was strengths-based leadership, and what that means is know your strengths and know your team’s strengths and exploit those. You know, why would you not, if someone has a really good gift at selling, you know they’re really good at engaging and convincing people, why would you not use them when you go to a meeting and you need some new piece of equipment? You really want to exploit people and exploit may be a bad word, but you really want to use those gifts to your advantage. Also, by understanding those, you understand your own blind spots and so you may have a gift in one area, but that leads to a certain blind spot in another, and you may have someone else in your team that will fill that blind spot and then knowing how you can complement each other. I truly believe, because this was a leadership workshop, that self-awareness is the key to good leadership and management. And that’s one of the biggest things since I’ve become a manager is really getting to know myself. Really getting to know where my weak spots and blind spots are and really trying to work on them or at least recognize them, because they’re always going to be there, and hopefully, through these tools that we’re learning, develop habits which hopefully help me to become a more well-rounded leader. Because we can’t be balanced, we’re always going to be good at some things and not others, but part of being a good leader is realizing that and bringing people on board that make that full picture. Some people say that don’t hire a yes-person, because if you just hear what you want to hear, you’re never going to grow. You need people that make you better and those might be people that disagree with you and you don’t want to hire everybody that’s the same personality as you are and have the same strengths that you have, because then you won’t fill those gaps. Because you’re never going to be fully balanced and if you try to be good at everything, then you’re going to be great at nothing. So, that was really kind of the crux and the nutshell. I spoke specifically on relationships and developing relationships within your office and realizing you’re not supervising robots. You’re supervising human beings with all the beautiful, wonderful things human beings are and having compassion and really trying to make a connection, because that’s what we’re all looking for in this world is connection, and feeling that we’re part of something great and big.
Laura: Yeah, I think actually you’re first statement really struck me. Self-awareness is really the key to everything. It really is. When you’re talking about leadership, that’s where to start. How about the participants? It sounds like there were a lot of questions and they were really engaged. Any specific things or key takeaways that will help other people who weren’t able to attend, but want to develop their own skills?
Julie: A shameless plug for John Collins and Critical Victories, who was the workshop, and I took advantage when I was a newer leader, his executive coaching and really helping me to grown and to go grow out of this imposter syndrome and you talk to him, and I fully agree, everyone is a leader. It doesn’t matter what your role or your title is. And so, I think everyone can take that. You lead in many aspects of your life, but he’s got a set of books and things. He just published a new book called The New Superior, ironically the title of our workshop, and it does go through the strength’s based leadership and again the self-awareness that you don’t have to be in a position to be in management to understand that and his specifically is based on Clifton Strengths, which is like a DISC profile, but it’s a little bit different. It’s a little bit more eloquent and I think that we all can benefit from that. So, I would say maybe research down that line to see, and you can always reach out to John as he is very gracious and helping anybody who wants to look in this direction. I know I’ve learned a lot from him. And, all of us can prepare for management leadership now, because most of us are these really good analysts and then the next day you get a promotion and you’re like what just happened? I used to be this great autonomous individual and now I’m supervising people. I just thought I got to make really fun decisions about the directionality of the lab. So, there’s no time like the present to really look into that management leadership stuff. As John says, only 10% of us have any sort of natural leadership inclination. So, just assume you’re part of the 90% and you don’t and then that way you just strive to learn.
Laura: That’s great advise no matter where you’re at. Just start preparing for it so that you’re ready when that role comes along.
Julie: I used to have that quote actually on my computer screen. Actually I think now it’s in a box, because we just moved laboratories, but I think that’s perfect, because you just never know when that opportunity is going to arise.
Laura: Nope. You want to be ready for it. This has been fantastic. Did we miss anything that you wanted to be sure we covered?
Julie: I don’t know. I can always talk. I think that’s one of my Clifton strengths. Whether you’re not sure if you want to hear, I’ve always got something to say.
Laura: We don’t want to miss anything, but I also always like to ask, for somebody who’s come back to ISHI 7/8 years, what brings you back. What do you like?
Julie: It fills my cup. It really does. I’m the type of person, and if you ask John, one of my Clifton strengths is that I thrive on connections and relationship and having quality relationships and getting to know people. Especially in this field, the networking is tops. It’s probably the same answer that I have last year, but the networking. It doesn’t hurt that the topics of the talks, the presentations, the workshops are always top notch and very, very relevant to what we’re all experiencing today and the things we need to be learning about, so that and the combination of all the other beautiful things that ISHI does for us are why I want to come back every year. I feel like I have to do something to justify coming here, because I want to bring as many analysts as I can as well, because everyone needs to experience this conference. I always get asked, “oh I went last year. Can I go again?” I have to rotate everyone through, but that’s really what happens. This conference really stands apart.
Laura: Well Julie we really appreciate having you here and the fact that you are presenting and helping with a workshop, so thank you for all that you do for us too.
Julie: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
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