Work Interrupted: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Impacted Life in the Lab

We caught up with workshop chairs Michael Coble and Jessica Charak Lehrner to gain their perspective on weathering the pandemic. Read on to see how both made it through the last year eager to take on 2021.




What is your current job title? How long have you worked there and in the field of forensic DNA?

Michael Coble: I am an Associate Director of the Center for Human Identification (CHI) at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. I am also an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Biological Sciences Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics. I have been at the University for over 3 years now.

Jessica Charak Lehrner: I have been the DNA Technical Leader of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s Biology/DNA Detail for the past 7.5 years. Prior to moving to Vegas, I worked as a Senior DNA Analyst for the Prince George’s County Police Department in Maryland for 7 years and as a DNA Analyst with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) for another 4.


How did your daily work change as a result of COVID-19?

Michael Coble: Fortunately, for me, my daily work routine did not change drastically. I am no longer working in the laboratory every day, so being able to connect remotely through my desktop computer each day was easy. All of the in-person training and teaching I do for the CHI had to be moved to an online format. Our analysts working in the laboratory had to adjust schedules and monitor their distance when working in close proximity.

Jessica Charak Lehrner: Working for the police department, we are considered essential personnel and therefore were required to continue to report to the office each day. For safety, all in-person meetings and trainings were canceled, and we shift adjusted our large group in an attempt to spread out our work schedules as much as possible, including allowing for work on Saturdays and Sundays. We had several internal validation projects which were slated to begin shortly after Nevada declared a state of emergency in March. These projects were postponed several times over several months as it became more apparent that the pandemic would not soon be coming to an end.



What challenges (if any) did you encounter feeling part of your team at work?

Michael Coble: I think the most challenging aspect of the pandemic was the loss of the in-person social interactions with coworkers and colleagues. Video feeds on “Zoom” or “Teams” only go so far. My friend and coworker Dawn Boswell had just moved into her new office next door to me in January before we started working remotely in March last year. I think everyone at the CHI is looking forward to returning to normal at some point in the near future.

Jessica Charak Lehrner: All of our in-person team meetings were canceled and we converted to the use of a virtual agenda. I am one that likes to communicate and I really enjoy the social aspects of working together as a team. I found it challenging to keep people updated when relying mainly on email, and to continue to collaborate and receive input/feedback from the group.


What was the most challenging work-related hurdle that you encountered as a result of the pandemic?

Jessica Charak Lehrner: In January 2020, we pre-planned and locked in dates for our required external casework and databasing QAS audits to occur in the spring, well ahead of the July 1st revision of the standards going into effect. However, due to all business-related travel being suspended by both agencies, the logistics of having an onsite external audit were not on our side. Ultimately, we were able to receive permission for a virtual audit to take place, albeit after July 1st. We shuffled our priorities and pushed to modify and implement our policies to ensure complete compliance with the new audit documents prior to the virtual audit occurring. In the end, I am pleased to say that we did not have any findings on either audit document. It was a reminder that sometimes we are forced to abandon and pivot from even our best laid plans.


Were there benefits to working remotely?

Michael Coble: Teaching in an online format can be much more challenging in some respects than teaching in person. Although the online audience may (not always) have their cameras turned on, it can be difficult to gauge their facial expressions while trying to teach. I find that I am always thinking of how to improve my presentations and adding new content, so that will help in the future.



What have been the most challenging aspects of juggling family and work duties?

Michael Coble: Finding that work/life balance was a challenge since it was easy to spend more time at the computer when there was no longer a need to commute to the office daily or spend time in an airport/airplane fly to a meeting. Setting boundaries was important at the beginning as it was easy to start feeling burnout after the first few weeks adjusting to the new schedule.

Jessica Charak Lehrner: While I continued to go into the office each day somewhat business as usual, my husband was relegated to working from home with our two pups. He works in an environment that is typically filled with social events and networking and he thrives off of public interactions and personal relationships. When I came home each night, he was more than ready to finally spend time talking to someone in person, whereas I still needed a little of my usual decompression time that I previously had while he was out being a people-person. There was a learning curve while we adjusted to our new normal, but in the end, we were able to compromise to ensure that both of our needs were being met.


What are you most looking forward to in a post-pandemic world?

Michael Coble: Seeing friends again. That is the only thing on my top ten list for now.

Jessica Charak Lehrner: My family does not live in Las Vegas and I have not been able to see them in person since November 2019. This feels like an eternity and is the longest I have ever gone without spending time with them. I cannot wait until we are all comfortable to travel so I can finally hug my parents, sister and brother-in-law, and niece and nephew.


Have there been any silver linings that you didn’t foresee?

Michael Coble: I am very fortunate to have a loving and supportive family, and recently became a grandfather to my grandson Steven. It has been great being able to spend some extra time with him and watch him grow.

Jessica Charak Lehrner: The cancellation of all in-person meetings and postponement of validations led me to have more time available to spend with two recently promoted Forensic Scientists who were learning DNA analysis, binary interpretation, and STRmix for the very first time. I felt that the pandemic allowed me to focus more personal one-on-one time training in the inner-workings and foundations of STRmix, in a manner that was more well organized and meaningful than if I had been juggling the trainings with regular hectic schedules. I also saw the bottom of my Outlook inbox for the first time in 7.5 years.


Jessica, you will be chairing the Tech Leader Meeting at ISHI 32. Can you tell us what subjects will be covered?

Jessica Charak Lehrner: As the DNA community continues to move towards probabilistic genotyping, I thought it would be helpful to discuss how to train new analysts in both binary and prob gen interpretations. There will also be material regarding experiences preparing for the different legal challenges surrounding the use of probabilistic genotyping. An important note: the agenda has not yet been finalized as it is pending travel approval from speaker agencies.


Michael, you will be chairing a workshop on likelihood ratios at ISHI 32. Can you tell us why the topic is important and why people should sign up?

Michael Coble: I have used a slide in previous presentations on the movement of laboratories from “binary” methods of DNA interpretation to probabilistic methods of interpretation where a man jumps from one rocky ledge to another with a canyon in between. Taking such a leap can be scary when using a new software for interpretation.

I then mention that there should actually be another rocky ledge in the middle of these two interpretation methods to represent the “Likelihood Ratio (LR)” rock, as it is important to understand the foundations of LRs as they are used to report the statistical output of the probabilistic software.

Although over one-half of the forensic DNA community has made that jump to probabilistic methods and have become accustomed to using LRs, Jo Bright (my colleague and co-presenter) and I would like to take a moment to bring a refresher for those labs already using LRs, and introduce laboratories looking to move to probabilistic methods in the near future. Unlike previous LR workshops hosted at ISHI, we plan to present material beyond the “basics” and work through more advanced examples. Attendees should have a solid understanding of algebra and bring a calculator to the workshop.