Our First Foray into the World of Virtual Events

Carol Bingham, Promega

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We have all had to learn new things in 2020. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the team in charge of organizing ISHI had to reimagine how to make a virtual symposium valuable for attendees. We learned a new vocabulary and picked up a new set of skills to pivot from an in-person conference to a virtual event. Although there were many angst-producing moments, we are pleased to report that the 31st International Symposium on Human Identification was a big success. A huge debt of gratitude is owed to the workshop organizers and instructors and session speakers who gamely learned how to record their presentations and appear “in person” to field questions from the audience.

The silver lining to holding ISHI in cyber-space was the expanded reach. A record number of people participated in this year’s event. More than 2600 people registered for the symposium representing over 40 countries. More than 30 percent of symposium attendees were from outside of the United States compared to our previous average of 18 percent.

The Symposium included three half days of general session talks. The event started on a high note with a joint keynote presentation by CeCe Moore and Paul Fronczak. Moore is a well-known celebrity in the field of genetic genealogy. She researches and explains family trees for guests on the show, Finding Your Roots with Henry Gates Jr., and recently starred in her own show, the Genetic Detective which featured cold cases solved through use of genetic genealogy. In the keynote, CeCe shared the story of how she assisted Paul Fronczak in the search for his true identity. Paul was kidnapped from a Chicago area hospital hours after birth and found abandoned a few years later before being reunited with his parents. Or was he? A DNA test revealed that Paul was not really his parent’s biological child, setting off a search for his true identity and leading to an even deeper mystery. Watch the keynote presentation and learn more about Paul’s case on our YouTube channel. Plus, he's provided an update in this article!

Additional general session talks covered the use of genetic genealogy to solve cold cases, including Loveless Lost: the case of the oldest Doe identified using forensic genetic genealogy, which was co-presented by Anthony Redgrave and Margaret Press. An update on the GEDmatch platform was provided by Swathi Kumar and Colleen Fitzpatrick provided insight on how law enforcement and genealogists might collaborate in future criminal investigations.

Identifying the Oldest Doe Using Forensic Genetic Genealogy: Henry Joseph Loveless

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In this interview, we speak with Anthony Redgrave, who led the team that mapped Loveless’ family tree to identify him. Anthony describes why the case was so difficult to solve, the steps he takes when working Doe cases, and what he anticipates for the future of the field. Anthony also discusses the work he’s doing with the LGBTQ community and in training those interested in learning more about forensic genetic genealogy.

For more genetic genealogy videos, view our playlist on YouTube.

New processes and techniques for DNA analysis were also explored during the conference. We heard updates on the use of Rapid DNA analysis from a policy perspective as well as in an applied setting. Speakers discussed using data from massively parallel sequencing in court and obtaining mitochondrial sequencing results. Walther Parson gave an update on the VISAGE project, organized to learn more about how physical traits can be discerned from DNA. Susan Walsh shared her work on predicting eye color from DNA.

In all eighteen talks were presented over the three-day general session. Talks were pre-recorded with live, moderated question and answer sessions after each talk. Questions which could not be answered in real time due to schedule limitations were collected and forwarded to speakers. We’ve begun sharing answers to these questions on the ISHI blog and more will follow in the coming weeks.

The Grupo Cientifico Latino-Americano de Trabajo Sobre Identificacion Humana was presented in Spanish and featured twenty separate presentations. The meeting was skillfully chaired by Ronaldo Carneiro da Silva Junior, Custodian of the National DNA Database for the Brazilian Federal Police. More than 500 people registered to attend the two-day session, a huge increase from the customary attendance.

The theme of the GCLAITH meeting was, ”New frontiers of knowledge: building the forensic genetics of the next decade”. Presenters gave talks on policy and process such as using Interpol’s DNA network in Latin America, coordination and standardization of laboratory processes, and incorporating Lean Six Sigma into the lab.

New technologies were discussed, including use of mRNA, next generation sequencing and use of touch DNA. Population and ancestry studies were also presented. The speakers did an excellent job of pre-recording their presentations and responding during the live question and answer period.

For attendees who wanted more focused information, four workshops were offered on a variety of topics. Doug Hares and Tom Callaghan from the Federal Bureau of Investigation led a workshop on the Implementation of Rapid DNA. Workshop speakers addressed the history of Rapid DNA, pilot programs in booking stations throughout the U.S., updates from RDNA task force committees and best practices for Non-CODIS use and courtroom considerations.

Dr. Thomas Kupiec from DNA Solutions coordinated a workshop on use of forensic genealogy to solve criminal cases. This wildly popular workshop attracted more than 800 participants. The workshop covered how genetic genealogy is being used to solve cold cases and the DNA methodology that makes it possible. Additional talks focused on cases solved with genetic genealogy including FBI case studies.

Mike Coble and Jo Bright co-chaired the “Arguing the case for DNA evidence based on probabilistic genotyping” workshop. This workshop was the most popular workshop offering with close to 900 people registered to attend. Jo participated from her home in New Zealand and deserves our utmost thanks for making herself available at 2:00am local time. Presentations focused on courtroom topics such as general acceptance, defense access to software and review of relevant case decisions. Validation topics included independent testing, discriminating between donors and non-donor and inter-laboratory studies.

John Butler and Hari Iyer from NIST, National Institute of Standards and Technology led a workshop on validation principles. This workshop discussed validation principles (the why), practices (the how), parameters (the what), performance evaluations (the when), and protocols (the so what) important to establishing the degree of reliability involved in aspects of forensic DNA mixture interpretation.

No symposium is complete without exhibitors and this year was no exception. The virtual exhibit hall featured thirty-two companies representing a range of products essential for forensic laboratories. Attendees were able to download product information, watch company videos and interact with company representatives. As an incentive to visit the exhibit hall, attendees could earn a free ISHI t-shirt by visiting three booths.

As usual, ISHI provided an opportunity to network with other attendees as well as the chance to compete for prizes. Photo contests were held each day and an ongoing contest was open to all conference goers. Points were awarded for completing tasks related to ISHI. Winners of the ISHI Game were: Sandra Avila, Instituto Nacional de Medicina Legal-Colombia ($50 gift card), David Fisher, New Jersey Institute of Technology, ($75 gift card) Rebecca Dian, Midwest Regional Forensic Lab ($150 gift card) and Amanda Battaglia, New Jersey State Police who won free ISHI and workshop registration for next year’s symposium.

Although we were disappointed to cancel the in-person symposium in San Antonio, Texas this year we hope that many of you were able to attend the virtual event. Would you like to be part of next year’s ISHI symposium? We invite you to submit a workshop proposal for consideration. The deadline to submit your proposal is January 10. All proposals should be submitted via the form on Proposals should be non-commercial and contain sufficient detail to allow the review committee to judge its value to the forensic community.

At the time of publication, we are still planning to hold ISHI 32 from September 14-17, 2021 at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Orlando, Florida. If circumstances change, updates will be posted on the conference website,

On behalf of the ISHI organizing committee, thank you for your continued support of the symposium and patience as we adapt to our new normal.