Reflections on Three Decades of Forensic Science

An Interview with Bill Linton

Karen Burkhartzmeyer, Carol Bingham, Promega

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DNA typing was in its infancy. Random Fragment Length Polymorphism represented the state of the art in forensic science and the world wide web was years in the future when the first International Symposium on Human Identification was held in 1989.

Few at that meeting could have predicted that the arguably unglamorous job of the forensic scientist would achieve such a degree of mainstream awareness and appeal. Fueled in part by the widespread popularity of television shows like CSI, Forensic Files, and NCIS among others, forensic science has been embraced in mainstream culture and is now recognized as the most powerful tool that law enforcement has at its disposal.

But decades before the field fascinated Hollywood, many of the real-life heroes of forensics gathered over the longest-running and largest conference in the world focusing on DNA typing for human identification. For the past 29 years, the International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) has brought together forensic professionals from around the world to discuss and debate issues that are important and sometimes controversial in the field, to share new ideas and to collaborate to advance forensic science.

The first ISHI was convened in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1989. Why Madison? The city is where the biotech company Promega Corporation got its start 40 years ago. Among the most promising products the company began manufacturing in the late 1980s were VNTR and RFLP probes that could be used in the emerging field of DNA forensics.

Promega founder and CEO, Bill Linton sat down with us to discuss why he organized the first symposium, how the industry has evolved and his thoughts on the future of forensics.

How did the first ISHI come about? What made you decide to organize an international symposium on human identification?

The first ISHI was held at a time when there was very little commercial activity. Very little of the market had evolved because DNA typing hadn’t really been established as a validated forensic method. As a result, we knew that having identified the VNTR (variable number tandem repeat) technology would lead to an evolutionary process and an educational process to get this technology into the market. The concept of a forum was really to bring together some of the early thinkers, the people who had recognized that this could be an important aspect of human identity, and bring them together and just exchange ideas, share ideas (have some speakers), but more importantly have people come together.

And being aspirational, in terms of, “Where could this go?” or “Who ultimately do we think the audience is going to be?” we said, “Well let’s make it an international symposium”. I’ll have to say I doubt that first symposium had much in the way of international participation. If there were one or two people from another country, I’d say that would have been generous. But the name of it was something obviously that stuck. It was also something that we thought, “Ultimately this is going to be global and it is something that’s going to be important to forensic and police departments and people involved with human identity worldwide”, and so that’s why we named it what we did.

Bill Linton in the lab

How did you get the word out about ISHI #1 and who did you invite?

There was a very limited audience at the time and so we pretty much knew the major scientists who were involved in developing the methodologies and starting the early ideas of validation, and so the communications went out to those people that we knew. It was probably a combination of letters, phone calls and (to the extent that there was email then), probably some email.

What was the response?

We probably had between 40 and 50 people at that first meeting. I think the fact that we had 40 or 50 people coming here to Madison and being involved so early in that event, we were very pleased with it, particularly the caliber of the people we had coming here. Most of the people involved were in academic research. There was some FBI involvement as well.

Bill Linton presents at early meeting

What were your memories of that first meeting?

I do recall, as we talked to people afterwards, that they wanted to continue it. They thought an annual meeting was good because of how rapidly the technology itself was emerging. Very early on, we had the recommendation to move it outside of Madison principally because of the weather. [The second one was in Madison as well], but the third symposium was moved to Arizona only because, at that time of year, the weather was unpredictable.

In those early years, did you expect the eventual growth of ISHI and its reach within the industry?

I think we all felt that this field had enormous potential and that we were an early mover in the market and in the adoption of the science and the technology going into manufactured kits, so there was that understanding. As the meetings occurred year after year, the feedback was always extraordinarily positive; the way it was managed by Promega, the way that we put together the programs, the people that were invited to speak. I always like to pay attention to the comments that people make during a meeting, and after a meeting, to reflect back on “Is this worthwhile to continue to do?” and as we heard from everybody, they said, “Yes, absolutely continue doing this.”

I’m not surprised that it’s gone on for 30 years. I’m not surprised that we have the people that we do today. I am surprised by the number of people who have been at virtually all the meetings year after year after year. I think that’s extraordinary. I also expected at the beginning that there would probably be more meetings that would compete with this meeting; that there would be other companies or other organizations that would try to do something of a similar nature. But I also think that because of how well ISHI was done, how well it was managed, that people look to that and said “That’s the meeting to go to.” I think we kind of took that high ground early on to establish something that really was seen as the most important meeting for many of these forensic people to go to year after year. I’m just happy that it’s worked out as well as it has and that we still have that level of quality.

The people who attend ISHI are pretty extraordinary. What sets them apart?

I think it’s the nature of the work. The work they do for most of the people who attend is not academic work, its not theoretical work, but every day they are involved in using advanced technology with outcomes that touch many, many lives. It’s rare that there are areas of science where you can get together with people who are so involved in things that have life and death consequences, or who help to resolve major questions around accidents or crime scenes. All of these things really touch so many people, and so these are people that are just involved in that day after day after day.

They like to get together with other people to share stories and to meet with other people they saw last year and the year before, and it’s really become like this immense club, but not an exclusive club. We see new people coming in every year. Something similar would be a meeting where you have healthcare providers that are providing solutions to medical problems at very advanced levels and where you have people who are really engaged from a practice standpoint. So that’s what it is, it’s a meeting of practitioners, and of course people who are continuing to advance the science and the technologies, to support the work the practitioners are involved with.

Your thoughts on the development and innovation of human identity technology through the years…

Forensic science is both a mature field and a field that continues to evolve, so in the very early days it’s like an infant and you’re feeding an infant with a lot of caregiving. And then I’m sure we could point to the adolescence phase where it was really emerging. I’d say the development of STRs and that whole other generation of technology corresponded to the adolescence stage. Today, I really see it as being more in the adult phase but still an adult with growth potential.

What do you envision for the future of ISHI?

Obviously ISHI is 30 years old this year. I hope I’m around to celebrate the 50th year anniversary. I think it would be a great accomplishment! I think it’s highly likely that Promega will still be very much involved in the field. And what’s curious to me is to ask, “What will be the new applications? What will be the new technologies that will begin to come in and really make a difference in this field? And what is our part in helping bring that into this field?” I’m just deeply curious about what it’s going to look like in 10 years, 20 years, but I would say the likelihood of our celebrating that 50th year anniversary for ISHI is very high.

Discuss the role of relationship at Promega and how that translates to ISHI.

As we look at what differentiates Promega from many other companies, it is this aspect of relationship and how important that is; both within the company, relationship with self, relationship within the company itself and our colleagues, and then relationship with our customers and the community. In community, we often think about the geographical community. With the forensics field, I think there’s a sense of community with the people who work in that area of science, the practitioners, and I think their reflection is that Promega has been there for them since the beginning, and for many of them, we’ve been there when they started their careers; and so, there’s this sense of support, of commitment, of a long-term view that gives them the confidence that we really do have a partnership with them.

I think the nature of ISHI itself is a reinforcement of this sense of relationship. For example, the event we have every Wednesday night at ISHI, I think they call it the “Promega Party,” is a reinforcement of how we look at their work, and how we look at them as going beyond simply a transaction. It goes beyond business and goes into this idea of relationship and the importance of what they do and who they are. It just continues to reinforce relationships and how that then cements and reinforces our connection with the people that use the products and the technologies.

Much has changed since the first meeting was organized in 1989, but some aspects have remained constant. These include ISHI’s focus on offering the forensic community a forum to gather each year to learn from each other and share the latest advances in the field.

As always, Bill Linton will be on hand at ISHI 30 to deliver opening remarks at the general session. Unlike the first symposium, this meeting promises plenty of warmth, sunshine and updates on technologies undreamt of thirty years ago.