Under the Microscope – Joel Sutton

The ISHI 26 agenda is already filling up with some great talks from amazing speakers! While the forensic community is a tight-knit group, we can always get a little closer, right? With that in mind, we asked our speakers some questions to get to know them a little better outside of their work. We’ll be posting their responses over the coming months in a feature we like to call Under the Microscope.





Today, we’re chatting with Joel Sutton, who will be presenting The Danger of NOT Assuming Contributors: Why the Goal of “Conservative” in Forensic DNA Statistics Should be Dropped in Favor of Being “Informative” during the General Sessions.

Joel Daniel Sutton is the DNA Casework Technical Leader for the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory Defense Forensic Science Center. He received a B.S. in Biology and M.S. in Forensic Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. A native Texan, Joel Sutton has over twenty years experience working in federal, state, and private DNA laboratories conducting forensic casework, paternity testing, medical genetic research, and providing expert witness testimony. He currently serves as chair of the SWGDAM Autosomal STR Committee and as a member of the OSAC Biology DNA Interpretation and Reporting Committee. He spends his leisure time coaching youth baseball and traveling with his lovely wife Jacque and their four children.


How did you come to work in the field of forensics/DNA?

I sort of stumbled into it.  My original career goal in college was to pursue medical school and/or medical research.  While transitioning to graduate school, I took a position working in a DNA laboratory where I learned about the power of DNA and its applications for human identification.  The forensic application was not only interesting to me but I also considered it a worthwhile mission.  I was pretty much hooked after that.


If you woke up tomorrow and this field no longer existed, what would you choose for a career?

My wife and I would probably start up a small business in an ideal location, near the ocean or in the mountains.   


What new technologies are you most excited about or where do you see the field heading in the next 10 years?

Next generation sequencing (NGS) certainly has everyone’s interest at the moment, but realistically it’s probably another 5-10 years out from being routinely used in casework.  The NGS application that is exciting to me is to be able to obtain comprehensive genetic information (e.g. autosomal, Y-STRs, SNPs, and mRNA) all from the same sample.  If NGS can be optimized over the next few years to interpret and deconvolute complex mixtures, this technology in my view would be as significant to DNA typing as when PCR and STRs were first introduced and utilized.  


What was the most challenging or bizarre case that you’ve worked on?

There have been many, as all cases have their own unique set of circumstances.  If I had to pick one sub-set of challenging cases, it would be trying to recover DNA from human skeletal remains in missing persons’ cases.  These have never been easy to process.


What person would you say has had the biggest influence in your life?

I have had the opportunity to meet and work with a lot of great people over the years, but my wife Jacque easily has had the biggest influence in my life.  Through good times and bad, she has remained the one constant in my life.  As my best friend, she encourages me through life’s difficult situations, keeps me in check to never think too highly of myself when things are great, and to always keep things in proper perspective.                     


Can you think of a specific example where ISHI has helped you in your career or with a case?

There have been many, which is why I enjoy attending these meetings.  In my view ISHI has always offered the best venue for the forensic DNA community to learn about new and exciting technologies and methodologies while also providing a forum to discuss these efforts with fellow scientists in the field.  ISHI has given me the opportunity to not only develop professionally through creating posters and oral presentations but also through fostering working relationships and collaborations with other casework analysts, vendors, and researchers.  This has certainly led to both personal growth and enhancing the capabilities at the laboratory where I work.


Who in the audience would benefit most from your talk?

Any DNA casework analyst struggling with DNA mixture interpretation and trying to make appropriate decisions on how to best evaluate the evidence will benefit from this presentation.


If you won the lottery, what would you do with the winnings?

First, I would buy a cabin in the mountains and a cottage on the beach.  Second, I would give a portion to my extended family and two favorite charities, St Jude and Wounded Warriors.  Third, I would travel abroad looking at world heritage sites.       


If you were to have a theme song, what would it be?

Tom Petty’s “Runnin down a dream”.


What would your ideal vacation be?

Anywhere off the grid, but a few weeks exploring Yellowknife and Inuvik to experience the midnight sun and Northern Lights over the Canadian Northwest sounds pretty good.