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Steven Lee

Forensic Science is in his DNA

After nearly three decades at the forefront of forensics, Steven B. Lee can speak with authority about what real CSI looks like. Hint: it’s nothing like the depictions on television. “The shows make it look like evidence is always there and always found,” he says, “and as if their methods are so sensitive that they are always able to provide meaningful results in 30 minutes or less!”

Steven Lee standing in a suit in front of a building and palm trees

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven B. Lee

Lee’s work on forensic techniques and technologies has helped bring clarity and efficiency to a complex field that has made quantum leaps over the course of his career. He both advanced the automation of DNA extraction, amplification, and next-generation sequencing and championed those emerging technologies, which have since become industry standard worldwide.

Throughout his forays in industry, Lee has always kept one foot firmly and enthusiastically planted in academia. He credits his formative years studying molecular mycology as a graduate student in Professor John Taylor’s lab as the foundation for how he now mentors his own students at San José State University and Florida International University (FIU).

The purpose behind the science

Soon after coming to Berkeley, Lee made a significant mistake: he accidentally threw away mitochondrial DNA that it had taken him weeks to isolate. Taylor’s reassuring response surprised him. “He made it a learning moment,” Lee says. “He told me, ‘Don’t be hard on yourself; it’s likely you’ll never make that mistake again.’” And he was right. Lee notes that the experience influenced his approach with his own students: he runs his lab as an open place where they are free to make mistakes and learn from them. “And, of course, some mistakes can lead to great, unexpected discoveries,” he adds.

“Automation allows DNA scientists to skip the tedious steps and spend more time on analysis.”

Lee joined Taylor’s team right as it was beginning to use the newly invented polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to enable the identification and  phylogeny of fungi and advance the study of the molecular evolution of fungi. (The team’s 1990 paper on its work is one of the most frequently cited scientific publications to come out of UC Berkeley.) Previously, isolating and sequencing genes had taken weeks or months and required growing gallons of the organism being studied. PCR took less than half a day and required just a speck of material. “To this day, it’s a significant method used in molecular biology laboratories,” Lee says. “In the world of forensic DNA, you can use it to process tiny stains that have been exposed to extreme heat or chemical abuse, or stored for decades underneath floorboards or in car trunks—even after attempts to clean up—and still get a meaningful result.”

Lee pivoted from molecular mycology to forensics when he joined the California Department of Justice Laboratory as the assistant laboratory director for research and development in 1994. A key moment came in 1996, when his expert testimony about DNA analysis enabled prosecutors to use DNA evidence in a double-murder case to obtain a guilty verdict. “Meeting the parents of the victims and witnessing how our work helped bring about a resolution connected me to this field and illuminated the purpose behind the science,” he says.

Developing the next generation

At the Justice Department lab and in his subsequent roles as director of research and development at MiraiBio Inc. and senior technical manager at Illumina Inc., Lee developed robotic processes, new technology, and software programs that automated and accelerated the extraction, analysis, and next-generation sequencing of forensic DNA markers. 

He likens the effect of these advances to that of automated espresso machines: “You could get your coffee beans out, roast them, grind them, put them into your coffee maker, and then add the water and make your milk separately and do everything manually, or you can push a button and end up with a beautiful latte. Automation allows DNA scientists to skip the tedious steps and spend more time on analysis.”

Vials filled with blood on the left. The foreground has a pair of tweezers and an empty vial on an evidence bag.

Steven Lee has advanced new methods for DNA extraction, amplification, and sequencing that are used in crime scene investigation.

Lee’s advocacy of next-gen sequencing at international symposia helped move the industry toward a new standard. And his openness to new opportunities—be it quality assurance for the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory or fecal-source tracking in water systems—helps keep him at the cutting edge of his field. “I tell my students that you always have to be on your toes learning new things,” he says.

His most recent appointment, as a professor at FIU’s International Forensic Research Institute, is as much about developing the next generation of forensic scientists as it is about developing rapid, efficient DNA technologies. In addition to working with the institute’s professors, graduate students, and postdocs, he’s creating educational programs in forensic science through international conferences, seminars, and CSI camps for kids.

“These programs can really spark an interest in young students,” Lee says. “Some of them may end up at universities and in careers in forensic science. But even if we only dispel the myths, so that the next time they watch CSI they say, ‘You can’t do that,’ then we’ve done a service, because they’re able to educate the people around them.”