We chatted with Dr. Bruce Budowle about the long and illustrious career that the has enjoyed in forensic science. Bruce has been a true pioneer in the field and continues to be a champion for advancing the science and using its power to advance the cause of justice.
How did you become involved in DNA forensics? What year was that?
That is a complex question to answer. I first became involved in forensics in 1980 as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. As a side project, I had developed a method to detect protein variants in hair. Members of the local crime lab and the University’s forensic science department heard about the work and came by to discuss it. I showed the work (which never was developed further) but was asked to provide training on serum protein and enzyme genetic markers what were the precursors to DNA. I was hooked ever since.
In 1982, the FBI laboratory advertised for a research position and with some urging from some members of ASCLD I applied for the position. I started in 1983, and I guess the rest is history.
I had the main responsibility to bring DNA typing online at the FBI. As far as DNA the FBI began in earnest in late 1985 and early 1986. The interest began because of work in the US at a private company – LifeCodes - and the research by Ray White’s team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Salt Lake City. Both groups were quite open with their work and offered to assist us. Indeed, I spent a month in Utah learning their methods and growing the probes to detect the VNTR (single locus) markers of interest. These markers from Ray White’s lab would form the core of what started initially in the US system. At the same time word came out about the work by Alec Jeffreys and the British Home Office that had been used to analyze sexual assault evidence. The case (sexual assault and murder of two teenage girls) showed that casework analysis was feasible; it also was the launching point and motivation for the FBI to commit the resources necessary to develop, validate and implement its first DNA technology (in 1988) known as RFLP typing.
I should mention that the FBI also looked at PCR early on but focused on RFLP typing as the latter was deemed a more robust technology at the time. That was the right decision. It would take 2-4 years more before PCR-based technologies were developed sufficiently and genetic systems such as HLA-DQA1, Polymarker, and D1S80 were implemented.
What were the early days like? How have things changed?
The early days were quite busy and hectic, which may in some ways not be so different than today. I would say we did not have the time and luxury to ponder on what would be the impact of this new technology/field of forensic DNA typing. We realized its importance but were consumed with developing and validating the method, setting guidelines for use, starting and running TWGDAM (the precursor of SWGDAM), beginning the development of CODIS, and going to court to support the validity of the methodology in numerous Frye hearings (and later also in Daubert hearings).
Technology-wise, RFLP was relatively insensitive compared with today’s methods, required (initially) radioisotope labeling of probes (in-house) and because of the process took several weeks to obtain a multiple locus profile all being manually generated. Of course, today trace samples can yield results, the statistics can be staggering, many steps are automated, and kits for the suite of markers are commercially available. Lastly, while there are still issues raised in the courtroom (and other venues), the sheer number of admissibility hearings has lowered substantially indicating the groundwork that we laid formed the scientific basis to support validity and helped to promote the field as a gold standard in the forensic sciences.
Reflecting on the field, are you surprised with how quickly technology has advanced?
We are coming up on almost 40 years since the field was initiated. I am not sure (in some respects) that what took almost 4 decades could be considered advancing quickly. But given the slow to change approach (for good reasons) of forensic scientists, where we are today in some respects is quite amazing. We can analyze samples that are invisible to the eye, we can develop investigative leads in criminal cases using CODIS, we can help identify human remains to support humanitarian efforts, we have software that facilitates interpretation to assist the analyst, and we now see that massively parallel sequencing can help solve cases that have not been resolved for years. The technical possibilities that present themselves today provide capabilities that could not be thought of as possible in the 1980s and early 1990s. Consider that one can sequence an entire human genome in a single laboratory in a few days and it does not cost a billion dollars- that is remarkable. It shows that more ways are available and will continue to become available to support criminal investigations, exonerate the innocent, and bring resolution to victims, families and communities, etc. Of course, all these technological advancements require training, validation, implementation, and addressing privacy issues, which also need to advance concomitantly.
Where do you think technology is leading the field?
We already see where it is leading. Increased casework demands and higher expectations by stakeholders of successful outcomes in a timely fashion. Kits with more markers that can be analyzed simultaneously with current platforms. New platforms such as desktop sequencers offering alternate platforms and throughput capabilities. More probabilistic genotyping software (and refinement of the software) to assist in interpretation of DNA profiles, especially mixtures. Expansion of types of evidence that may yield lead value. Eventually, an expansion of databases to accommodate data beyond STRs. More intelligence being gleaned using forensic science. Lastly, there will be more automation, especially with massively parallel sequencing.
Can you foresee a time when STRs analysis is replaced as the standard method for sample analysis?
If science does its job of developing better methods and better ways to interrogate DNA, then definitely STRs will be replaced. I do not see a full replacement happening soon as the current systems are robust and as mentioned above it takes time to change things in the forensic field. But as newer technologies, such as massively parallel sequencing or some as of yet technology to be invented, become well-defined, validated, user friendly, and offer capabilities that substantially improve analyses they will be embraced and eventually replace current methods – just as STRs and capillary electrophoresis replaced RFLP, VNTRs, dot blots, D1S80, and slab gels.
To move forward, we do need to assess the databases we have and how well they function. One limitation the community has is that it sees the large number of profiles at NDIS as a barrier to change. But we do need to think beyond today and what do we want to be able to do 10-20 years from now and beyond. CODIS is a remarkable tool, and it has assisted in many cases. But it does not assist in all cases, and we should think about how to enhance lead development. In some ways, the reference profiles in the database (around 20 million) are a depreciating commodity. There is strong evidence that crime tends to be committed by younger people. Therefore, it is reasonable to consider that, for example, profiles placed in the database 20 years ago hit proportionately less than profiles that are more recently entered. If so, then the older profiles are not contributing to investigative leads as newer profiles are. The FBI should perform a study to determine how the number of hits to age of profile to age of donor trend. It could be extremely informative for future investments and decision making. We should start thinking of developing strategies where the DNA data in databases are appreciating to benefit more with database usage. Of course, newer approaches require resources and time to commit to them and we have to consider the data and especially privacy, but some of those issues are being addressed in some states (see Maryland as an example).
How many students have you worked with over the years? What have those students gone on to do? Do they keep in touch?
I have worked with many (thousands) students throughout my career starting with training scientists on serology (in the early 1980s at the FBI) and DNA (from the late 1980s at the FBI) to educating law enforcement and the judiciary to more formalized education at the University (for the past thirteen years). In academia I mentored directly eight Masters students, 10 doctoral students, and nine postdoctoral fellows. All have gone on to productive careers - some in industry, some in academia, some in government (such as crime labs or public health), and some have gone on to medical school. I have been lucky that my students over the academic portion of my career were extremely talented and quite remarkable, and there was no doubt they all would do great things. I have kept in touch with many of the people I have taught and mentored, but not as often as I would like. I often hear from my former students during the holidays and get to see some at the national and international forensic genetics conferences. It is always good when we catch up.
What will you miss most in retirement?
I do not think I am going to miss too much in retirement, because leaving one job does not mean that I will stop working. I now just have the freedom to focus on issues that I believe are most important, such as combatting Human Trafficking. However, I will miss seeing my friends and colleagues who I saw almost every day. They are more like part of my family. Hopefully, I will see some of them at ISHI later this year.
What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
I really have not thought about a legacy. As time goes on, the work we did to build and formalize the field of forensic genetics/genomics will be forgotten and what will be remembered is the more recent work by those advancing the field at the current time. Perhaps, if anything, that leading by example is important with the most important characteristics of honesty, integrity, empowerment, hard work, commitment, innovation (always looking ahead to see what can be done to be better), and helping others. I hope that people believe that I exemplified these characteristics and will follow in similar ways.
What are you looking forward to doing in retirement?
Some of the same things I always have done – continue to contribute the field. But also to have some time for family - especially my adorable grandchildren.
Will you still be involved in the field going forward?
Yes. There are so many things to accomplish, and opportunities abound. As mentioned above one area I would like to focus is combatting Human Trafficking, and we all should consider becoming involved. We have experienced a pandemic (COVID-19) for more than two years and now there is talk of considering the virus as endemic. Human Trafficking is another pandemic that subjugates millions of people per year, and these people overwhelmingly live in poor, horrendous conditions with little hope of a viable future. We should all be aware that Human Trafficking is not occurring solely in some far away land; it is occurring in our neighborhoods and soliciting/exploiting our children. We should never accept Human Trafficking as endemic and need to combine our skills and experience to find ways to help the victims, interdict the traffickers, and punish the consumers of this distasteful plague on humanity.
It has been our pleasure to work with Bruce over the last 30 plus years. As he continually reminds us, Bruce has the distinction of being the only person to have attended every ISHI. He will continue the trend this year with a presentation at the Using Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) to Improve Sexual Assault Investigations Workshop on Thursday, November 3.
Thank you, Bruce and congratulations, on your semi-retirement.