Navigating the Challenging World of Leadership in Forensic Biology

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.


In this interview, Julie Sikorsky, the Forensic Biology Unit Manager at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office discusses a leadership workshop that she co-chaired at ISHI 32. She addresses why the challenges listed above can be daunting, some of the main themes that emerged during the workshop, and why communication is more important than ever. She also shares timely advice for others looking to pursue this line of work and compares the realities of working in a crime lab to what is often depicted on TV.




Laura: Thank you for joining us for our annual interview series at ISHI 32. Today, we have a special guest, Julie, joining us. Julie, why don’t you tell us about yourself and your work?


Julie: Well thank you. Thank you for having me. My name is Julie Sikorsky, and I’m currently the Forensic Biology Unit Manager at the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. I’ve been with the agency for over 19 years now. I started off as a senior forensic scientist, so I was a bench analyst for over 10 years, and then promoted to manager. So, I’ve been a manager now for almost 10 years. It’s been an interesting journey.


Laura: Wonderful. And I understand you’re co-presenting a workshop this year.


Julie: I am!


Laura: Can you tell us a little bit about that?


Julie: So, we like to have a little bit of fun, so the workshop is called “You Deserve a Cookie: Navigating the Challenging World of Leadership in Forensic Biology.” And, the workshop is essentially a management/leadership workshop. It’s about managing in forensic biology (clearly by the title), but what about it makes it more difficult than managing other units in forensic science? I don’t think we’re appreciated as much for the nuances that forensic biology has compared to our other units and we wanted to give those managers an opportunity to really hone those skills and talk to one another and find a kindred spirit and (hopefully) a support group.


Laura: What kind of unique challenges do people face in the field?


Julie: So, forensic biology is… Not only do we have the quality assurance standards, which every forensic laboratory has accreditation standards that they need to comply with, but we have a unique extra layer of the cake where we have the quality assurance standards, and that’s unique to forensic biology. We also have more grant opportunities, and managing grants is also a complicating factor. Our training is incredibly long, so when we lose people, that has a detrimental effect. And everybody wants DNA on their cases, so we are struggling with backlogs, along with a myriad of other things that we have to deal with.


Laura: Yeah. You know what I really like about the workshop format is that you really get a change to engage with people and see what kind of complications they’re facing. What came up?


Julie: Well, training. That’s why I brought that up. We didn’t expect that to be such a big topic, but how do you train efficiently? Because it takes us a minimum of about 18 months (on average) to train a full DNA analyst, and that’s just the DNA training part. Some laboratories are more successful at training than others, but people struggle with that. How do you train and still have people doing casework? Typically, your trainers are coming off of casework to train, and just a lot of the struggles that went along with that. A lot of it was not feeling supported by their upper management; no time, and no resources are the typical ones that you’re hearing. I would say with some of the issues we got, it’s just good to be heard sometimes and it’s just good to have someone else who’s having a shared experience with struggles and talking with one another about that. And you feel heard. You feel validated with your struggles, and it kind of makes it a little bit easier.


Laura: Absolutely. Well and I did notice people walking around with dots on their nametags, so it sounds like you did some personality and behavior work. Maybe a DISC assessment, something like that.


Julie: We did. We did a DISC assessment, and it was a very dynamic, involved process, because we wanted to get people out of their seats. We didn’t want to just lecture at them the whole time because that just gets boring. So, Pam Marshall, who I believe you’re going to be interviewing at some point, she led our DISC assessment section, and what we did is we had them actually take the assessment, decide where their predominant characteristic is (because no one is ever just a D, I, S, or C). We’re all a combination of multiple emotions and personalities, but what is your dominant trait. And so, the trait that you got paired with was the color dot that you put on your badge. So, I’m excited. It was two-fold. One, so that we could divide them into groups, and they could really kind of talk about what their pluses and minuses were (the strengths and weaknesses) of your personality type. But, also, I can keep an eye on them throughout the symposium and go pick their brains on what they thought as well as what’s going on with them and engage just a bit more and recognize them for being a part of a really amazing workshop as well as being part of a management team.


Laura: Well I think that’s amazing and you get a little bit of a unique insight as you’re working through the workshop with them. Because I do think there are some unique challenges. You have backlogs. You have legislative mandates. What are some strategies? How did you help people address those?


Julie: So, we had an incredible panel made up of a lot of experts in the field, and what we wanted was to have experts who have not only a unique knowledge of forensic biology, but we also wanted them to have that leadership or management component as well. So, we actually brought in Ray Wickenheiser as well as George Schiro, who have been managers for a long time to address some of these more political things. I know that I’m more isolated, because I’m more middle management. I’ve got a crime lab director that I report to, whereas they kind of moved through that hierarchy of being a bench analyst and technical leader, so they’re able to offer more of a unique perspective as to what we can do at our level to make sure that we have the metrics. One of my favorite sayings is, “if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” It’s very important, especially with legislative initiatives or budgetary confines, if you need a new piece of equipment, to have that data and how to prepare it and be able to pitch that to your crime lab director, who in turn pitches it to the major whoever you report to so that you can successfully get the resources that you needed. So, a lot of it was metrics. A lot of it is good planning. And I would say the overarching theme of the workshop, which kind of came out, was communication. And that was the original reason we did the DISC assessment. Because once you know yourself and how you like to be communicated with, you can communicate better with other people once you can tell what their personality types are. So, it was communicate, communicate, communicate, so we brought in Angie Vasselotti, who’s done a lot of Lean Six Sigma projects and has been a bench analyst for a long time, and she did a whole section on communication and the importance of communication. And just when you think you have the right communication, you need to communicate more. And, so that was a theme that we saw throughout that you think you’re being clear about something, but you really need to try more and  you’ll get more done.


Laura: That’s remarkable, and really no matter what industry it is, looking at those gaps when you’re moving from analyst to leadership, things change.


Julie: There’s huge gaps. And most of the time we’re autonomous analysts. We’re only concerned about what’s happening right here on my benchtop and what’s happening with my cases, and you have to change that mindset. You have to go to an outward mindset. It’s about the ‘we’, not the ‘me’. And so that’s something that has to change. No one prepares us for this. And that’s another reason why we thought this workshop was so important. Because there is no steppingstone. Our community (the forensic community) has gotten better in general about offering leadership workshops and trainings (ASCLD does a really nice job), and then we brought in John Collins, who is a leadership coach, to also sit on our panel and be a speaker, to just kind of fill that gap where it’s ok to not know what you’re doing, because no one told you how to do it. I believe the stat that John said is that less than 10% of individuals (in any field) have natural ability to be a leader. In forensics (or science in general), it’s even less than that, because we’re typically kind of introverted. So, it’s a very hard gap to do, and that’s why it was so important for Pam and I to put on this workshop.


Laura: We’re so happy to have it here and we’ve heard so many wonderful things about it already. So, let’s talk more about you. How did you get interested in the field?


Julie: How did I get interested in forensics? So, it’s a very funny story. So, like most of us, I was pre-med. My dad’s a doctor, and I loved the difference he could make. So, I went into school majoring in bio-chemistry. I went to UC San Diego. Beautiful campus. I loved my experience. About mid-way through, I discovered the other students that were med students… I just didn’t like the company. It just didn’t feel organic or natural to me. So, I was like, “Ok, I’m kind of questioning. I’m not sure what I’m going to do.” I still knew I was interested in science. I was hardcore science. So, I had a biochemistry lab and we did a technique called RFLP (I’m dating myself a little bit). And, one of the assignments for the laboratory was to do a report on a technique that you used in this laboratory. I went to the library, as one does when the internet is a baby, and I found this book by Lauren T. Kirby that was about DNA fingerprinting and I devoured the book. It was all about using RFLP on DNA, and I was fascinated. I was hooked. I was like, “this is it. This is what I’m doing.” Thankfully, I had a family friend who worked with the San Diego Police Department, and at that point, there was no CSI, there was nothing. Forensics was kind of this unknown thing, but she got me into the crime laboratory to take a tour and the guy says, “Biochemistry? No, we’re phasing RFLP. PCR is where it’s at.” So, I went back that day and literally changed my major to molecular biology, got a volunteer job doing nested PCR in an HIV lab on campus and that’s all she wrote. So, I was hooked from there, and I ended up going to Marshall University and got two master’s degrees; one in forensic sciences and one in biomedical sciences, and I have such a passion for this field. It’s just amazing to apply something that I love (science) and to be able to make such a difference with it. That’s my journey.


Laura: Well, I think you’re timing is perfect just in watching how things have transformed over the last decade. It’s been incredible.


Julie: Yes, a lot of changes. We’re kind of sticking still with the PCR thing, but so much is happening. So many exciting developments. We’ve always been a pretty forward-thinking laboratory. We’re not always the earliest adopters, but we’re not far behind. We do like to get in there and try some things out. I have a motto in our laboratory: if it can improve efficiency or quality we’ll take a look at it and see what we can bring to our analysts and the citizens of Palm Beach County.


Laura: I love hearing the latest and greatest every year. What kind of challenges are you facing right now? Anything that you talk about?


Julie: Sure! So, I don’t know if there are necessarily challenges, but the newest things that we’re working on (and we all have challenges with validations, because things keep changing), but the thing I’m most excited about (and super timely for this particular symposium) is our efforts to do a disaster victim identification program. We are very into implementing Rapid DNA. Right now we have one Rapid instrument online already just doing standards and then we have another instrument that we would like to make deployable to scenes should we need that, and we need to be prepared. This morning’s talk regarding the Trade Center really underscored that. So, that’s kind of our passion right now is to make that happen and put the pieces in place so that we’re prepared if we are needed. And, to be able to serve the best we possibly can.


Laura: Yes, this morning’s talk definitely underscored how important that is and how far we’ve come yet how much more we can do. So, what advice might you give somebody who’s considering the field?


Julie: Well, it’s a great field. It’s a passion. It’s a career. A profession. It’s not a job. You have to be wed to this. This is something where every day is not going to be good, but there’s some good in every day and you have an important role to play where you can’t, yourself, have a bad day, because everything you’re doing is precious and there’s so much impact that you have. So, think carefully. It’s not the sexiest job. When you look at everything on TV, I love it. I watch the shows and I want to know what my jury is watching, but that’s not real life. So, you really have to have a calling. You have to be willing to make sacrifices to expose yourself to the underbelly of society and be able to see the beauty of what you’re doing and what you’re bringing to the people that you serve.


Laura: Yeah, it’s definitely, from the stories that I’ve heard, it’s not easy, but that commitment to justice and making things better is remarkable, at the end of the day.


Julie: Exactly, and that’s what you have to focus on. There are times that I wish I could put my children in a bubble and keep them away from the things that I see, but if not me, who? And that’s really what I wanted to bring. I know I could do this, so I’m doing it for them. I’m doing it for you. I’m doing it for everybody else and it’s my calling. I think for new forensic scientists, that’s how they need to look at it. It’s not money. It’s not fame. It’s not glory, but it’s doing the right thing.


Laura: Absolutely. And I’m assuming you’ve been to ISHI before?


Julie: A couple of times…

Laura: So how have you found it in the past and this year?


Julie: It’s hands down my favorite meeting. Sorry to all the other meetings. It’s hands down my favorite meeting, because I think it’s so thoughtful in the topics that you pick and it’s very timely in their presentation. You’re discriminating in as far as you don’t accept everything and you really kind of take the cream of the crop. I also love it because of the connections and the comradery. To me, it’s almost like a family reunion every time I come here. This is my most coveted meeting, so it’s very hard for me not to come. I made a rule, finally, because I want to be a good servant leader going with the theme of leadership, where it’s not all about me and my growth. I need to make sure that my staff are growing too. So, while I love this meeting and it’s my favorite, I want to give them the opportunity to have that as well. So, I try to go every other year, and then give them the opportunity. So, this year I brought two analysts with me from the laboratory and it’s their first ISHI, and I’m very excited. And this year is a little bit different. We’re hybrid, so we’re a little bit virtual, and a little in person. A little country and a little rock ‘n roll. And it’s actually very nice. It still has the same vibe. The same energy. And I love how adaptive we are because you guys have outdone yourself. You always do.


Laura: That’s so nice to hear, and I do think it’s a fun first year. Because we are half and half, during some of the social events, you can really take your time and get to know people and have great conversation.


Julie: You absolutely can, and you guys have great opportunities for that. So, well done.


Laura: Well, we are so happy to have you hear and thank you for presenting. We hope to have you back again.


Julie: Definitely. Next year!


Laura: Absolutely, thank you Julie.