Under the Microscope – Sara Katsanis

The ISHI27 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’ve been posting their responses in a feature we like to call Under the Microscope.





Today, we’re chatting with Sara Katsanis, who will be presenting Re-Thinking International Missing Persons DNA Databases during the General Sessions on Wednesday, September 28th.

Sara Huston Katsanis is an Instructor in Science & Society Initiative at Duke University. Her policy research focuses on genetic testing applications in humanitarian efforts, medicine and law enforcement. She is exploring policy challenges for applying scientific technologies to human identification in human rights contexts, such as human trafficking, migration, and adoption fraud. Katsanis also researches applications of genome sequencing for diagnostic challenges and commercialization of noninvasive prenatal diagnosis. Past research explored direct-to-consumer genetic testing, pharmacogenetics drug labeling, familial searching of CODIS, and surreptitious collection of DNA. Katsanis received a MS in Medical Genetics at Brunel University, UK in 1997 having completed her research thesis at Imperial College School of Medicine at St. Mary’s in London, UK. From 1998-2000, she worked as a DNA Analyst at the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office. In 2002, she joined Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD as Laboratory Manager for the DNA Diagnostic Laboratory, responsible for oversight and supervision of clinical diagnostic testing. In 2006, Katsanis began working with the renowned genetics policy institute, The Genetics & Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins in Washington, DC. She joined Duke in 2009.


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

After my Master’s in medical genetics, I sought an opportunity to apply genetic technologies rather than conduct more basic research. This led me to an entry-level position as a forensic DNA analyst. I left after a couple years to pursue other opportunities applying genetics in biotechnology and medical diagnostics. As I entered the DNA policy arena at the Genetics & Public Policy Center, I was the only staff with knowledge of forensic DNA. So I came full circle back to a focus, at least partially, on policy in forensic DNA applications.


What is your favorite thing about your job? Why?

At heart, I am a scientist and collaborator, so there’s nothing better than hypothesizing and devising with colleagues new ideas and concepts. As an academic in Duke Initiative for Science and Society, I have the freedom to explore the research questions that interest me most. The intersection of science and policy is full of unanswered questions across many fields of science, and since science is always ahead of policy, there is always more to explore.


What is the biggest challenge you face in your job?

Policy consensus is nearly impossible, both in medical and forensic sciences. Whereas in medicine there is civilized debate within the academic community that can go on for years or decades (such as whether or not to return genetic data to research participants), in the forensic community those conducting the DNA testing shield policies and resist debate for fear of retribution by courts or defendants. I hope that the forensic community eventually will embrace a culture of transparency to foster community discussion and debate to improve processes and prevent unintended harm to the greater community and democracy.


What accomplishment are you most proud of relating to forensics/DNA?

I love working on a projects that have no clear answers or consensuses, but that inspire debate and philosophy. For years my research into forensic DNA policy questions was seen as adversarial. While some of my personal positions may be in opposition to some policies, the forensic community is beginning to see that unbiased academic research is not a threat but an academic evaluation of what works and doesn’t work and where policies should engage the community to protect civil liberties. Policy research and evaluation is part of the checks and balances of a democratic process. I am proud that my research has held a small voice for developing policy, particularly in application to vulnerable populations and in human rights contexts.


If you’ve attended ISHI before, what keeps you coming back? If you’ve never attended before, what are you most looking forward to at ISHI27?

Before I started attending ISHI, I went to the annual ASHG meeting. This meeting has 7-8,000 participants and is too overwhelming to absorb. The scope of ISHI is just right in comparison. I prefer a single hall with high-quality talks to multiple talks and workshops from which I can’t choose.



When you were little, what career did you think you’d have as an adult?

Like many, I thought I would be a doctor, mostly because I wanted to help people in some way. As an undergraduate I fell in love with genetics and the DNA lab and abandoned that plan. I didn’t know then that there could be a career in DNA policy research. But now in retrospect I can see that my interest (and minor concentration) in philosophy set me on this path.


Where do you see the future of forensic science headed?

I can’t speak to all forensic sciences, but when it comes to DNA, I think we are headed towards universal DNA databases. This may not happen in my lifetime or through law enforcement, but would be invaluable for medical research and human rights identifications, so feels inevitable. If you look at the scope of genomic sequencing in the medical arena, you can appreciate that the technology is broad, cheap, and transportable. As for policy and ethics, a universal database is far less discriminatory than the discreet population and case-by-case approach that has transpired over the past two decades. But we will need more and deeper discussions and protections to assure that universal databases are useful for forensic and medical purposes while protecting against abuse of power.


What do you hope the audience learns/takes away from your talk?

I hope that the forensic community will hear my lecture as a start to a brainstorming on how to better embrace the technologies we have at hand and the humanitarian needs around the world. Instead of thinking “that’s not possible,” I want us to think, “hmmm, how can we make that work.” We have technology, we have brainpower, and we have good will. I want us to come together to develop improved systems to apply DNA technologies for humanitarian aid.


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

When I met Kathy Hudson, I told her I wanted her job and asked how I can get there. She looked at me blankly, but then gave me an opportunity in 2005 to work with her, eventually hiring me. She taught me to apply my scientific training to policy and ethics questions and surrounded me with experts in social science, law, and communications that gave me the tools I needed and apply now. I am wholly grateful to her for her mentorship and example of forging new paths, collaborating broadly, and taking chances.


If you could time-travel, what year would you go to and why?

I have no interest in time travel, preferring to live in today. But since that sounds way too high and mighty, let’s go to Italy in 1515 to meet Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. I would love to hear, see, smell, and taste life in Renaissance Italy. But not for long, and especially not as a woman. I’d prefer to live in today’s world.


Star Wars or Star Trek?

Mars Attacks.