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UAlbany Chemist Helps CSIs get to the Root of the Investigation

ALBANY, N.Y. (November 10, 2015) -- A new project being launched by the University at Albany aims to improve data collection efforts at crime scenes by reducing the amount of time required by crime scene investigators (CSIs) to examine and confirm abused plant residue.

As states and the federal government continue to debate the legalization of marijuana, the combined efforts to combat the growth, distribution and use of the plant costs more than $8.7 billion each year in the U.S. alone. But marijuana is only one of a number of plants that are commonly abused for their psychoactive properties, which can be processed, repackaged and sold as part of a multi-billion-dollar illegal drug market in the United States.

Associate Professor of Chemistry Rabi Musah
Associate Professor of Chemistry Rabi Musah has been awarded $688,158 to provide better tools for crime scene investigators when examining unknown plant materials (Photo Paul Miller)

In support of this research, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) has awarded UAlbany Associate Professor of Chemistry Rabi Musah a three-year, $688,158 grant to provide better tools for crime scene investigators when examining unknown plant materials found at the site.

Musah plans to use mass spectrometry -- an analytical chemistry technique that involves measuring the mass-to-charge ratio of detected molecules -- to determine the chemical ‘signature’ that characterizes a sample. This will lead to the creation of methods that can be leveraged by forensic scientists to quickly accomplish genus or species-level identification of abused psychotropic plants found at crime scenes.

"The goal of our project is to build a comprehensive database of abused plants that forensic scientists can use to more quickly process unknown plant materials at a crime scene, as well as provide a statistical analysis of the certainty of the results," said Musah.

Musah plans to partner with crime labs in New York and provide learning opportunities for students who want to become CSIs. The project aims to make it easier for forensic investigators to conduct on-site analysis, and provide the added benefit of reducing the amount of disruption at the scene.

But for Musah, who serves as the director of UAlbany’s Center for Achievement, Retention and Student Success (CARSS), there are the added benefits of keeping young people interested in STEM fields, as well as showcasing career opportunities for students who are historically underrepresented in science, and who might not otherwise think that a career in forensics is achievable. "The research serves as a wonderful opportunity for project participants including women and other students historically underrepresented in STEM, to contribute directly to solving important current problems in science and technology," said Musah.

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A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.