Mark Perlin teaches his employees how to communicate science in the courtroom


Mark Perlin, Ph.D., chief scientific and executive officer of Cybergenetics, is a 2017 Pittsburgh Smart 50 honoree and Impact award winner

Mark Perlin co-founded Cybergenetics in 1994 to interpret DNA data for medical diagnosis and gene discovery. Five years later, the business pivoted into a higher profile field: forensic analysis of crime scene DNA.

It was 10 more years before Perlin, who is the company’s chief scientific and executive officer today, first testified in a 2009 case in which a fraction of DNA was found under the murder victim’s fingernails. He had to explain to the judge — and eventually the jury — how his TrueAllele® technology separates DNA evidence from multiple sources into genotypes, then uses computers to determine how strongly the evidence matches a single person, or other evidence.

Perlin practiced with the prosecutor a half-dozen times before discovering the right approach. “Our ability to communicate the science became something that was valued by lawyers and courts, and opened up a whole new business,” he says.
Successful communication became critical to Cybergenetics’ growth.

Growing the business

As demand grew, Perlin needed his staff to help with the communication efforts. But they were reluctant to dive in.

“They had to know everything that we were disclosing,” Perlin says. “They didn’t just have to know the science. They had to know everything behind the science.”

They learned from reading material and mock trials that pushed them to feel uncomfortable.

“I would ask them hard questions for weeks,” he says. “Maybe 2 percent of what I asked them would appear at that trial, but you never know which 2 percent it will be.”

In 2017, Perlin was scheduled for trials in five different cities in one week. That pushed his staff to step up to the plate, but they proved ready to be unbiased representatives of science.

Lose the jargon

It will be uncomfortable when your staff first communicates something complex, Perlin says. There’s a learning curve. If technical salespeople, for example, must explain ideas accurately and effectively, they need feedback.