Interview with Joseph Pasternak, DNA Supervisor and Technical Leader – State of Montana Forensic Science Division.
A lifelong lover of puzzles and detective shows, alumni Joseph Pasternak has worked in forensics for nearly 20-years. He began his career at the City of Phoenix Police Department Crime Lab after completing his bachelor’s degree in biology from Arizona State University. He then moved onto the State of Montana Forensic Science Division where he now serves as the DNA Supervisor and Technical Leader.
Pasternak describes himself as a collaborator who believes in the importance of working collectively with other agencies and laboratories to advance cases. In addition to his role at the State of Montana Forensic Science Division, Pasternak is a technical assessor, speaker, and teacher.
During this interview, we discussed Pasternak’s career, new developments in DNA and serology, his experience as a student in the University of Florida forensic science online graduate program, plus his advice for people who want to work in forensic science.
Tell us about your lab at the State of Montana Forensic Science Division.
Our laboratory has about 35 people. We’re pretty busy–we do the whole state of Montana. I’m managing 11 analysts that are spread out over three different sections. We have the serology or forensic evidence screening, then we have the DNA analysis unit, and we have our CODIS unit. [Our CODIS unit does] our databasing for the state and convicted offender samples, as well as everything that has to do with CODIS and comparing [samples] to the FBI database.
What does your day-to-day look like as the DNA Supervisor / Technical Leader?
When I come in, I like to get a status of what’s going on with everybody. But throughout the week, I’ll have a project that I’m needing to do. Right now, our laboratory is in the middle of bringing probabilistic genotyping online. This week we’re bringing Y-STRs online, finally!
There’s always something that’s going on, but I still have time to do the science. I’m not a hands-off supervisor. I still do DNA analytical work. I’ll still do serology work when needed. [This] keeps me in tune with what everyone’s doing. In addition, I’m a part of the peer review circuit for all of our cases at this lab.
As a technical leader specifically, I’m responsible for all the DNA operations; meeting all the standards and making sure we’re following the rules and standards set out by the FBI’s quality assurance.
What advice would you give those interested in a career in DNA & serology?
“I always tell students, set yourself up for success and do the research. When you get into college, take the courses that are going to matter.”
I always tell students, set yourself up for success and do the research. When you get into college, take the courses that are going to matter. We get a lot of applicants for jobs at our laboratory who are just not taking the right courses.
And I hate to say it, but take the harder classes, especially the lab-based classes where you spend four or five hours in a laboratory once or twice a week. That really does make a difference [during the hiring process].
Then always be persistent. Don’t expect that you’re going to get the first job you applied for.
What are those basic classes that anyone working in forensics needs to take?
Starting out at most any crime lab, to be a forensic scientist in the DNA laboratory, you need to have a science degree. A degree that involves laboratory instruction as well, [such as a] biology degree, chemistry degree, or another natural science. A sociology degree or a criminal justice degree isn’t probably going to work.
Specifically, for the DNA laboratory we want to see classes within genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and then also statistics. Statistics was recently moved to a coursework requirement versus the former “training” requirement.
Those are really the core classes that you need. That are required by the FBI quality assurance standards to be a DNA analyst. Then there are programs like the University of Florida’s online forensic science master’s program, that literally incorporates all of this into the degree. It’s built for success.
When I see a school like UF on their resume, I know that person has taken those courses. We still review transcripts, but it’s just great to see that they made the commitment.
When you were looking to get your master’s, why did you choose the University of Florida’s forensic science online graduate program?
“It wasn’t like something that I had to forge through. It was something I enjoyed doing. I still talk about it to this day as one of the most positive decisions I made in my career.“
Back when I started out in forensics in 2002, I was really lucky to have the opportunity to work at a lab that was literally on the cusp of technology the whole time I was there. I had some great mentors there, and a couple of the senior analysts were enrolled in [the University of Florida’s forensic science online graduate program]. I can remember them saying that the program was difficult, but in order to become a technical leader someday, you really needed to have a master’s degree.
I kind of kept that in my mind and after moving to Montana I realized that I really needed more. If a job opened up, I wanted to have the skills and the credentials to get it.
I researched a lot of options and UF just seemed like the option for me. Everyone was friendly and I got really prompt communications with them. I liked the layout of the program and it was highly rated. I was so excited just to get in the program and immediately started learning. The networking and the community of like-minded people in the program made it awesome for me.
It wasn’t like something that I had to forge through. It was something I enjoyed doing. I still talk about it to this day as one of the most positive decisions I made in my career.
How did you like the online learning format?
“It was quality learning. The materials, the text, the amount of engagement. I just loved it from start to finish.”
It really made the whole program for me. You know, I was married with a full-time job and two daughters. There was no time to go to school and report in person.
Although there are due dates and we had to do a lot of assignments for each course, it was on my time. I was able to work at my own pace. I did a lot of my work that night. My kids would go to bed and then I’d be doing work on my computer. That was my life for the time I was doing the program. It worked great. I was able to cater the program to my own needs and schedule. That was totally a foreign thing prior to this program. I thought it was just an ingenious way to deliver learning.
Nancy was a great lecturer and she’d always ask these great module questions in the post discussion posts. Like, “Why is it important to know about the nucleotide function and how DNA is assembled?”
It was quality learning. The materials, the text, the amount of engagement. I just loved it from start to finish.
Which specialty track did you choose?
Oddly enough, I didn’t get the Serology and DNA Masters focus. I got the Forensic Science Master’s focus. I learned about toxicology, quality control, quality assurance, and a little bit about controlled substance analysis. It was really great, because I worked with these people every day and it gave me great insight into exactly what they were doing. How [other disciplines] related to my work and their contribution to the cases.
How has the Forensic Science Online Graduate Program impacted your career? Do you find yourself using skills you learned in the program at your current job?
[While working on my master’s degree] I dove deeper into a lot of the processes and methods that we did in the lab. I started doing more validations here in the lab. Then when I finished my program, I was fully eligible to become a technical leader and by a stroke of fate my technical leader at the time was offered a director position in the laboratory.
I applied for and got promoted to his position. It was life-changing for me to have that opportunity.
What developments in DNA & serology are you most excited about?
For many, many years, almost since I’ve started, they’ve been really following RNA-based body fluid identification. It would be really nice for some cases to be able to identify exactly what type of body fluid it was that we were getting a DNA profile from, or at least narrow it down more than we can now.
At our lab, we’re going to be validating an infrared camera system or identifying hard to find bloodstains on dark clothing. That’s going to be a big deal because we are always trying to put out the best product and we don’t want to miss anything–for obvious reasons.
I’m really excited for next gen sequencing to be incorporated into the modern public forensic laboratory. Next gen sequencing provides much more information for a sample. I don’t believe anyone has incorporated it full time yet in a public lab, but having attended and seen some presentations on it, it seems like that’s the next big step in forensic DNA analysis.