By Ellen Rossetti
In the sand-strewn battlefields of Afghanistan, military investigators will have a new tool to fight crime. A high-tech, portable workstation -- no bigger than a CD player -- will allow them to immediately identify the tiniest substances between the ridges of a fingerprint.
Instead of sending samples to a sophisticated off-site lab, investigators can manipulate them on the nano-scale with mass spectrometry, getting more accurate findings and saving time and money. With just 15 minutes of training, an investigator can test a piece of wood, fabric or any number of substances, looking for traces of improvised explosive devices, drugs or other illicit materials.
Guido Verbeck, associate professor of chemistry at the University of North Texas, developed the small-scale forensic workstation to be deployed to Afghanistan this summer using a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense Battlefield Forensic Program. Because the device, called the nanomanipulator, can be encoded to look for a particular substance, suspects can be identified and captured more quickly.
"Each substance and individual produces unique chemical signatures, so investigators analyzing samples may be able to tell who's touched an explosive device or a drug stockpile because the chemistry is connected," Verbeck says. "It's an easily understood device that helps solve complicated problems."
From military battlefields to police departments and campus laboratories, UNT forensic science experts such as Verbeck are helping to solve mysteries and cut down on crime.
Renowned forensic anthropologist Harrell Gill-King, director of the UNT Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology and co-director of the Center for Human Identification at the UNT Health Science Center, used his expertise to identify victims of the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City bombings, the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster and Hurricane Katrina. He is researching the effects of intranasal and intraoral cocaine and methamphetamine use on the cranium, face and dentition.
Teresa Golden, professor of chemistry and director of UNT's undergraduate forensic science program, is working with the Health Science Center to determine how concentrations of metals stored in bones can interfere with obtaining a DNA profile. Her lab has developed a technique to synthesize artificial bone as a standard for comparison.
UNT is one of only two schools in Texas with an accredited undergraduate program in forensic science, and the UNT Health Science Center is one of only two schools in the state with an accredited master's program in forensic science.
In UNT's undergraduate program, students earn a bachelor's degree in chemistry, biology or biochemistry with certification in forensic science, taking classes in criminal investigations, science, math and forensic research. Faculty from chemistry, biology, criminal justice and other fields lend their forensic expertise, and students often participate in internships in local, state, national and private crime labs.
"With our program's mix of courses in science and criminology, students leave as stronger scientists who are more employable in a variety of fields," says Guido Verbeck, associate professor of chemistry who teaches in the program.
Teresa Golden, professor of chemistry and program director, says many of the students go to medical or graduate school, and others go straight into careers in DNA labs, law enforcement labs, the military and homeland security.
"As one of the few accredited programs, we're able to attract top students who want to pursue careers in this growing field," she says.
Other experts, like Edward Hueske, principal lecturer in criminal justice, use applied research to help police understand crime scenes. Hueske studies bullet deflection, debunking the myth that a bullet travels in a straight line through objects.
"Each time it hits something, it's going to be deflected slightly in all probability," says Hueske, who worked as a forensic scientist at police crime labs before joining UNT. "That causes confusion for crime scene investigators who don't have this background."
Last summer, Hueske traveled across the country training officials at police agencies, including the New York Police Department, about bullet deflection and other topics. He has consulted with prosecutors and defense lawyers in criminal and civil cases and set up a criminalistics certificate program at UNT for future police administrators, detectives, crime scene investigators and attorneys.
Now, Hueske is using bovine samples to research what happens when a bullet hits soft tissue, muscles, organs and small bones. He also is examining pseudo-high velocity impact blood spatter.
"Police officers need to understand the language of forensic science," Hueske says. "That's where I provide the link."
When attorneys need help interpreting DNA evidence, they often call Robert Benjamin, associate professor of biology and a prominent courtroom DNA identification expert. Since 1988, Benjamin has helped prosecutors and defense lawyers at both the state and federal levels with more than 200 criminal and civil cases involving DNA profiling and analysis. His applied research involves reviewing DNA reports and studying how the DNA evidence was collected and tested.
"DNA is unbiased, but it can be misinterpreted," Benjamin says.
If a knife was used in a murder and someone's DNA is found on it, is that person the killer? What if the suspect had been preparing dinner before the murder?
"Once you decide the results are correct, you have to get into the significance of them," Benjamin says. "DNA gets around in a lot of ways, so you have to ask, is there another explanation?"
One of Benjamin's doctoral students in molecular biology at UNT, Angie Ambers, is working with Health Science Center researchers to explore methods to repair damaged DNA with a grant from the National Institute of Justice.
A victim's DNA in skeletal remains or a killer's DNA under a victim's fingernails can't easily be analyzed and identified if the evidence has been damaged or destroyed by sunlight, heat, humidity or other environmental factors.
Ambers and principal investigator Bruce Budowle at the Health Science Center are working to repair damaged DNA in bloodstains and bones and in samples that a suspect has tried to destroy using bleach.
"It all boils down to improving our chances of going to court with adequate information to prosecute someone," says Ambers, who earned a master's degree in forensic genetics from the Health Science Center and has a master's in criminology.
The researchers are using a cocktail of different enzymes to repair varying types of damage. They're also studying whole genome amplification -- a method that may improve recovery of the low quantities of DNA often encountered in forensic samples.
Ambers conducts her research as a DNA analyst at the Institute of Applied Genetics and at the Department of Forensic and Investigative Genetics at the Health Science Center, as well as in the lab of Benjamin, her major professor at UNT.
"This research has the potential to provide families with resolution," Ambers says. "I enjoy coming to the lab every day knowing that the work I'm doing can make a difference in the real world."
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