New Advances in DNA Technology to Assist with Mass Casualty Disasters

Mandy Sozer of SNA International describes how DNA technology has changed over the past 30 years and how new advances are helping to bring closure to families of mass casualty victims.

We also discuss the importance of educating the public about DNA for forensic use and why women seem to be drawn to the field of forensic science.





Laura: Hi, we’re here with Mandy Sozer, and we’re going to talk a little bit about her work. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself.


Mandy: Oh, well it’s great to be here. Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be at the ISHI meeting this year. So, a little bit about me… I have a degree in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Tennessee (Biomedical Sciences is kind of like Biology), and my specialization was in genetics. And after I received my PhD, I went to work at Cellmark Diagnostics. And I worked there for a couple of years, and then I moved on to Fairfax Identity Laboratories, where we did DNA testing for paternity, forensics, convicted offender DNA testing, and we were running upwards of 100,000 samples a year when I left, and then went into independent consulting. I did some consulting on my own for a couple of years and brought some folks in to help me, worked on some interesting projects, and they wanted to come back and work on more, and now my company, SNA International, has about 200 – we’ll have about 200 employees by the end of this year.


Laura: That’s incredible!


Mandy: Yeah, we’re working on forensics, biometrics, human identity.


Laura: That’s wonderful! How has it changed since you’ve started, with that growth that you’ve had?


Mandy: Well, I feel like when I started, I was very fortunate to work for a great group of forensic scientists. So, I feel like I’ve learned from the best: Charlotte Word, Robin Cotton, Lisa Forman, Dan Garner. And it really gave me a great foundation, and they really instilled in me the importance of using appropriate technique, validated techniques, trained and competency tested individuals, and really focused on quality. So that was instilled in me early on, and you know, back then, everything was manual. We were running multi-locus DNA probes on gels, blotting them with paper towels. You know, fast forward 30 years, and now we’re running DNA in little boxes. Rapid, without any human intervention, so it’s quite amazing where the technology has taken us.


Laura: You mentioned Rapid DNA; I think everybody is interested in that, talking about that, using it in different applications. Tell us a little bit about how you do that.


Mandy: So, we support the federal government – the Department of Homeland Security, and we’re helping them implement DNA (specifically Rapid DNA) into their operations. And it really gives the government the opportunity to do DNA in a wide area using Rapid DNA, and in a very short period of time. They’re looking to use Rapid DNA to combat human trafficking, we’re helping to enhance legal immigration, preventing bad guys from crossing our borders and doing bad things, and so it allows the agents out in the field to test very quickly, with minimal delay, to people. So, it’s just great. We’re also working on some information technology tools to really capture what’s the value of the DNA? We’re taking what we’ve learned over the last 30 years of DNA testing, and incorporating that into an IT platform, so that we can make sure that we have DNA analyses that are robust, that are fast, the analysis is done correctly, and the data is secure.


Laura: Security, yeah, that’s very important. I believe I read you managed a lot of the Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 efforts. That must be incredibly challenging.


Mandy: It was. I mean, they were different. They both involved families that had devastating events happen to them. 9/11, with the terrorist attacks, you know, no one wants to live through that again, and the power of DNA was just amazing. You know, to use DNA to reunite families, it’s giving answers to families. You can’t take what happened back, but you can help them understand what happened to their loved ones. Hurricane Katrina was another devastating event – a natural disaster. Again, giving answers to families. And now, with the advent of Rapid DNA, I can see how the Rapid DNA can really give answers a little bit faster to families. We’re working on a project with the American Society of Crime Lab Directors where we are looking at mobilizing Rapid DNA units from around the country to respond to a disaster so that crime labs can support each other. It’s a lot of work to have that capacity in every single lab around the country. It’s much easier to have that capacity spread around, and then when there’s a disaster, people come in to help each other out.


Laura: Mobile, that’s interesting. That’s really interesting. I’d like to see where that goes.


Mandy: We’ve done some exercises where we’ve taken Rapid DNA instruments out into the field in Sprinter vans. We’ve had them in a family assistance center, where families can come give their DNA, we have them out near the morgue, where we can take samples from post-mortem [individuals] and run those and then (at the identification center) comparing that data. We’ve done some studies in the exercises that we’ve done where we’ve reached out to the family members and have said, “How do you feel about collecting a DNA sample/ giving a DNA sample to the government to find your loved one?” And it was overwhelmingly positive.


Laura: I find that really interesting.


Mandy: Yes, the families felt very good about the work that was being done, and they could see how active things were happening. Often, when they go to a family assistance center, they’re asked a lot of questions – maybe two hours worth of questions, and we can take a DNA sample and within 90 minutes have a DNA profile back while they’re still answering those questions. And they felt like they could see the government in action.


Laura: That’s incredible!


Mandy: It really is quite amazing.


Laura: Wow! Very incredible! You know, I think it’s interesting, as a woman who has started your own business in the field, who has been working in the field for your entire career, what’s that like? I feel like there are a lot of women in this field.


Mandy: Yes, there are! It’s amazing how many women are at the bench doing DNA and I’ve always wondered, “Why is that? Why does there seem to be a disproportionate amount of women over men?” I don’t have the answer. I’d be interested in hearing other people’s answers. I have some thoughts about the type of work. It’s very detailed. You have to have just a tremendous attention to detail. There’s small manipulations, and I’ve made an analogy to sewing or cooking, and so I think that may be one of the reasons why there’s so many women in the field. And it’s great, because women are under-represented in science technology, so it’s great to see so many women interested in forensics.


Laura: Yeah, I agree. I do find that fascinating too.


Mandy: I think just the type of work is also very interesting, because you’re really helping people. You’re using science and applying it to social problems. Whether that be finding the criminal, whether that be exonerating the innocent, whether that be stopping human trafficking, whether that be reuniting families after a disaster. So there’s quite a bit of satisfaction to being able to bring that science to bear on societal issues.


Laura: I agree. Having interviewed people at this show for many years, I think it’s remarkable how everyone comes together in service of justice. And it’s been exciting to see, since I work throughout different industries.  How do you like the show? How often have you attended? Is this new to you?


Mandy: I think I’ve missed the first show, because I was testifying in court when it was the very first one in Madison.


Laura: Really?! So you go all the way back! So the 30-year will be fun for you next year?


Mandy: I’ve tried to make almost every other show. I think it’s great to be able to meet other scientists, learn what everyone’s doing, work in a collaborative environment, and then visit the vendors to see what new products are available. I think that something that’s needed in the industry is education to the public. So, the people say “DNA, oh you’re going to learn all these different things about me.”  And I really think that DNA is – the locations that we look at in the DNA are specific for forensic or human identity use. In the forensic context that we use, we often are not looking for genetic disorders. We’re not going to be able to tell anything else about you. And, in fact, I say that I could probably tell more about you from your grocery receipt that your groceries tell about you than I could ever tell from your DNA profile. So I think as we move forward as a community, we really need to educate the public as to the benefits of DNA and not to be afraid of it.