Under the Microscope – Dane Plaza

Rapid DNA technology can provide investigators with real-time investigative information, enhance border security and public safety, aid in prevention and detection of human trafficking, and provide identifications in mass casualty events. While Rapid DNA was designed for operation by non-technical field personnel, it is important to be implemented properly with the complementary support of trained scientists. Utilizing a reachback team performing modified Rapid DNA analysis can increase success rates, minimize the need for recollection, and save significant time and money while providing reliable actionable intelligence to field forward personnel.


In his presentation at ISHI 32, Dane Plaza will detail the processes undertaken to operate a unique, scalable, and comprehensive Rapid DNA program including field operations, logistics, training, staffing, privacy and data security, reachback, and impact stories through two plus years of operation.


We caught up with Dane to discuss the program developed for the Department of Homeland Security and challenges that arose and were overcame while implementing this program.



Can you briefly describe the program that Bode Technology developed for the Department of Homeland Security?

Bode planned, deployed, and supported an all-encompassing Rapid DNA program for DHS to deter possible child trafficking by identifying fraudulent family units. This included personnel, instrumentation, logistics, IT services, training, custom reporting, and 24/7/365 reachback support.  Rapid DNA was deployed to multiple geographically separated sites across the Southwest US border within weeks of program launch. From there, the program grew and adapted to changing border conditions over the past two plus years.   The impact this program had cannot be understated with thousands of Rapid DNA samples being run in a true field forward environment and with fraudulent family units being identified in a matter of hours based on the Rapid DNA results.


What makes Rapid DNA technology uniquely suited for this role?

Rapid DNA technology gives expedited results (~1.5 hours) with on-site access to DNA testing, both of which are critical to this mission. Since the families being tested may only be in DHS custody for a short period of time, the Rapid DNA results give definitive answers in a matter of hours. This is something other investigative tools cannot do.

But what is most critical to recognize is that Rapid DNA technology alone did not meet the entire scope of the mission. It was the comprehensive Rapid DNA program that included communication, reachback support, training, and technical assistance from Bode’s accredited laboratory. So, while the ability to provide the level of speed was critical, the reachback and programmatic support from our laboratory was essential to the success of the program.


What challenges arose as you were implementing this program? How did you overcome them?

Creating a well-defined communication/support pathway and training program was challenging. This effort, similar to law enforcement, often has high turnover – primarily due to re-assignments and the presence of temporary duty staff. Establishing a robust training program that non-technical operators could relate to and retain the information was key.  Additionally, maintaining on-site support staffing and 24/7/365 remote reachback coverage that could continually interact with changes in field staff was a significant challenge.  We relied on lessons learned from our internal training programs and operational experience with other forensic support missions to overcome these obstacles and generate a highly successful and sustainable program for DHS.



Were there any surprises that you encountered during this project?

Given the potential difficulties encountered with field forward forensics, the high success rates and consistency of results was outstanding. This was driven by the Rapid DNA technology, training program, and reachback lab support. The program produced >94% first pass success rate with over 7,000 samples processed despite the limited training time, variety in ages of subjects, challenging environmental conditions, and adaptations to the program.



What advice would you give to other agencies looking to implement a Rapid DNA program?

Rapid DNA technology is a game changing forensic technology that allows expedited DNA results. But the key word to the question is “program”, of which instrumentation is a key component, but it’s only a piece of the puzzle. Utilizing an experienced partner that understands the technology and mission objective to aid in planning, training, and providing support is critial to a successful program.  We suggest always involving an accredited DNA laboratory – whether it’s Bode or your local crime lab. While Rapid DNA technology is powerful, it works better as a program and is not just stand-alone instrumentation. A well planned out, comprehensive program will not only produce expedited and reliable answers, but will hold up to any scrutiny of the results.



What tips would you give to someone who is just starting out in the field of forensics, or what is the best advice that you’ve received?

Work hard and be innovative.  The forensics field can be demanding and stressful, but a strong work ethic and positive attitude can take you far in your career.  Don’t be afraid to bring up new ideas as some of the most impactful programs/research I have been a part of started as blue sky ideas that resulted in successful and impactful projects.



Has there been anything good that came out of the pandemic that you’ll continue doing going forward?

We have further enhanced our reachback center and training program using the tools that have become more available during the pandemic. Much of our staff is more comfortable and experienced with virtual support and training, which is a large part of the Rapid program. While we recognize every mission is different, we believe we have an amazing infrastructure and baseline to further enhance our remote support for future operations



What is your favorite Disney character and why, or which Disney character do you most relate to and why?

While a bit obscure, it’s Heimlich from A Bug’s Life.  His dialogue and overall presence in the movie make me laugh every time.



If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

The ability to bypass all traffic.  If you have ever driven in the Northern Virginia area, you would agree!



What’s one thing that others may not know about you?

I grew up raising cranberries for Ocean Spray in Northern Wisconsin on our family’s marsh/bog.