Leading the Lab: Insights from Those in Managment

Tara Luther, Promega

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While the work of those in the field of forensic DNA is highlighted multiple times per day in various media publications, those who lead the teams are rarely mentioned. In a field like forensic science, where daily decisions have large consequences, it’s imperative that we have strong leaders, but the current process for hiring for leadership positions has some serious flaws.

Brian Hoey, Lab Director at Missouri State Highway Patrol, expounds on this, “In this field, we have people who have studied for years, four years at minimum (six years a lot of times) in a very difficult, challenging major (like chemistry or biology). [They read] journals and really immerse themselves in being a good biologist or a good chemist. Then we put them on the bench and they're a biologist or a chemist for years, where they further immerse themselves by reading journals and attending meetings to build their scientific acumen up. Then at some point, we need leaders to lead work groups. So, we then take these people who are really good scientists, and we suddenly say, ‘You're going to lead people.’ But then we don't give them as much training as they need to be effective. You don't have the four years of a bachelor's degree or two years of a graduate degree in leadership.”

When Brian first joined the Missouri State Highway Patrol, he had no plans to stay there long. Growing up in Chicago, forensic DNA was in its infancy when he attended graduate school in the late 1980’s. A talk by a guest lecturer sparked his interest in the field so much so that changed his trajectory and began doing similar work to what was being done in crime labs at the time. After graduating, he found that there were few open jobs for forensic DNA analysts and decided to take a gamble on Missouri after an advertisement caught his eye. That was almost 30 years ago.

Though he started as a bench scientist, over the years he has worked as a DNA Technical Leader, Supervisor, and now Director, and he’ll be the first to tell you that there were some hard lessons learned along the way. “I screwed up a lot of people. I made a lot of mistakes, and I broke a lot of people because I was not aware of the needs of people and how to do goal attainment with the needs of the organization. I was not aware of people's growth needs in so far as, if they're low growth and just want to make widgets, or you can overload them with things. I overloaded people and broke them. I put people on different tasks and broke them.”

According to a Gallup poll, only 10% of people possess the inherent talent to be a leader, and that number could be less in any given field. For Brian, like so many others, that meant he had to do something different. “The first lesson in leadership I had to learn was to invest in me. If I'm not good at what I do, and I'm not being the best leader I can be or learning how to improve my skills, I'm going to break people. And these people are not going to be good for me or my organization.”

He says that through the struggles, and inevitable turnover, something dawned on him. “How did I get to be such a good DNA person? I went to school for four years and got a biology degree. And I went for two years and got a master's degree. To be a good leader, I am probably going to have to invest that much or similar amount of time in my leadership. I decided to get a master’s in business. I changed course in the meetings that I attended. I stopped going to general meetings and started to go to leadership conferences.”

Over time, Brian’s hard work began to pay off and he has discovered a passion to help educate and prepare upcoming leaders. “I started to get better at what I did. I stopped breaking people and started doing a lot better at my job. So now it's become my latter career goal mission to not allow other supervisors to make the same mistakes as I did, or at least if they make those mistakes, help coach them through it and get them to have that ‘aha moment’ a lot faster than I did.”

Julie Sikorsky is the Forensic Biology Manager at the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office. Like Brian, she never intended to be a forensic scientist, but planned to follow in her father’s footsteps to become a doctor, inspired by the difference he was making in people’s lives. Her career trajectory took a turn mid-way through her bio-chemistry major when she realized that medicine no longer felt like her calling. During a biochemistry lab class focusing on RFLP, she was assigned to draft a report on techniques used during the class. Scouring the library led her to a book on DNA Fingerprinting by Lauren T. Kirby that described using RFLP on DNA, and she was hooked. A family friend who worked at the San Diego Police Department offered to give Julie a tour of the crime laboratory where she was told to focus on PCR. Later that day, she changed her major to molecular biology and never looked back.

Like Brian, Julie has found holes in the training available to forensic scientists, “No one prepares us for [leading]. There is no steppingstone. The forensic community has gotten better in general about offering leadership workshops and trainings (ASCLD does a really nice job), but there are still gaps.” To help fill those gaps, Julie co-chaired a workshop at ISHI 32 to provide leadership training and discuss the unique challenges that forensic DNA laboratories face. Her co-chair for that workshop was Pam Marshall, Director of the Master’s in Forensic Science and Law Program at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well as the Director of the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science.

As with many who joined the DNA field in its infancy, Pam never thought she’d have a career in forensic science. Like Julie, Pam was a pre-med student who had already completed her MCAT and had a lifelong dream of working with children as a pediatrician. Then came the OJ Simpson trial in 1994. It was the first court case in her lifetime that had been televised from start to finish and she didn’t miss a minute. She recorded the trial on VHS and raced home between classes to “watch Henry Lee talk about blood on socks.” Like Julie, she fell in love with RFLP, changed her career path, and never looked back. Though she currently works in the academic space, Pam does have five years of experience as a casework analyst.

When asked about common challenges that were brought up during the workshop, Pam says they’re similar to any other field: time, resources, and money. Julie adds to this, “Every forensic laboratory has accreditation standards that they need to comply with, but forensic biology has a unique extra layer of the cake where we have the quality assurance standards. We also have more grant opportunities, making managing grants a complicating factor. Our training is incredibly long, so when we lose people, that has a detrimental effect. And everybody wants DNA on their cases, so we are struggling with backlogs, along with a myriad of other things that we have to deal with.”

Just how long is training? Julie says that training efficiently is a particular problem, because “it takes us a minimum of about 18 months (on average) to fully train a DNA analyst, and that’s just the DNA training part. Some laboratories are more successful at training than others, but [it’s a challenge]. How do you train and still have people doing casework? Typically, your trainers are coming off casework to train, [which causes other struggles].”

Brian has felt similar challenges in his lab. “A term I hear a lot these days, in both forensic world and the business world is building an airplane in flight. And that's kind of what you're trying to do; you're trying to figure out how to bring all these things on board and trying to keep all these balls in the air... The challenge is that, particularly in DNA, the field is changing so rapidly that it's very challenging for us to figure out which basket to put our eggs in. Are we going to talk about rapid DNA? Are we going to go massively parallel sequencing, or next generation sequencing, or SNPs. All these other things that are happening are just very challenging to a garden variety crime lab. When they're just trying to solve crimes... Backlogs are growing, cases are becoming more and more complex with mixtures and sensitivity, and scientists are challenged at the bench. It's a very challenging time in our science with just so many paths and so many priorities for us to handle. And we're still, in so far as forensic laboratories, we're still operational. We still have backlogs. We still have cases. We still have court dates coming up, et cetera.”

Adding additional stress to those in leadership roles are priorities assigned to them by government officials. “We have a backlog of thousands of sexual assault kits. That was our attorney general and our government's priority. They prioritize that for us. The legislature last year went out and gave us a million dollars for rapid DNA instruments. ‘We want you to start doing rapid DNA.’ That became a priority.”. He says, as a leader, “What I don't want to do is start bringing all these other things board and just really break my people, because they're almost broken as it is right now. But those are the challenges. You have operational challenges. You have futuristic challenges. And [as a leader], you have to set your folks up to be able to find the right lane to be in. And sometimes this is the priority today and that's the priority tomorrow.”

With the stress brought on by new technologies, Pam says that another common theme expressed during the workshop was keeping staff motivated. “[In our workshop], we really tried to get to the heart of why all of us are in this position, which is to serve. Julie provided a great overview of servant leadership and what that truly means. Our mission at Duquesne is simple. It’s serving God through serving students, so that they, in turn, can serve others. I believe, really, at the heart of every crime lab, you have that same type of mission. We are serving others every single day, so [it’s important] to find the joy again.”

Brian echoes these sentiments and will be the first to tell you that despite the challenges that come from working in a leadership role, there are numerous benefits as well. “Being leader is a gift. It's a gift to watch other people develop, and to see them make the same mistakes that you did and be in a position to be able to coach them through those, and to help them know that they're not alone. When somebody does have that ‘aha moment’ it is really rewarding and fulfilling. And I think that's why I stick at it. I like to see those light bulbs come on.”

So what advice do these folks have for others considering stepping into a leadership position? Pam says, “Start to build your own network [of leaders] and try to remember one of the best supervisors that you’ve had in your career and really try to emulate some of those same qualities. Who provided that encouragement? Who provided that support? How did they deliver clear and defined expectations for your job? I think that when you look back, we all have someone that comes to mind immediately that we really enjoyed working for and working with.”

Julie takes a more practical approach, “One of my favorite sayings is ‘if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’ It’s very important, especially with legislative initiatives or budgetary confines, if you need a new piece of equipment, to have that data and how to prepare it and be able to pitch that to your crime lab director, who in turn pitches it to someone else so that you can successfully get the resources that you need.” And “Communicate, communicate, communicate., And just when you think you have the right communication, you need to communicate more.”

Brian reiterates that it’s important to never stop learning. “You just have to carve out time to learn. And sometimes when you're a leader, it's not about you, it's about the people you lead. And sometimes you must make sacrifices for those people. So, there were many evenings and Saturdays and Sundays that I was watching a lot of TED Talks, or reading books, and trying to work on my leadership acumen. I put down the Michael Connellys and John Sanfords and went for the Simon Sineks and started reading more leadership stuff. So, it's about making that sacrifice because you owe it to the people you lead. You owe it to those people. And when you're attentive to their needs, you owe it to them to be the best version of yourself and the best leader you could be.”

And finally, Julie offers a bit of advice for all considering the forensic DNA field, “It’s a passion. It’s a career. A profession. It’s not a job. You have to be wedded to this. This is something where every day is not going to be good, but there’s some good in every day and you have an important role to play where you can’t, yourself, have a bad day, because everything you’re doing is precious and there’s so much impact that you have. So, think carefully. You really have to have a calling. You have to be willing to make sacrifices to expose yourself to the underbelly of society and be able to see the beauty of what you’re doing and what you’re bringing to the people that you serve.”

If you’re in a leadership role, consider attending The New Superior – A Better Way to Be the One in Charge workshop led by John Collins on Monday, October 31st. In this workshop, our facilitators will challenge what it means to be a superior and encourage participants to develop new attitudes and strategies for being more effective and trustworthy in how they lead and manage their people. Participants will undergo a Gallup Global Strengths assessment and learn how their individual strengths create both advantages and disadvantages in how they interact with a wide variety of people, including scientists, criminal justice professionals, and police commanders. Through expanded self awareness, our attendees will grow their effectiveness as leaders working in the complex arena where science meets the arbiters and enforcers of law.