S P R I N G 2 0 0 2/V O L U M E1 1,N U M B E R3
By Vera Dordick
his office window, Professor David Shub, chair of the Department of
Biological Sciences, can look eastward across the Universitys
perimeter road to the looming edifice of the New York State Police Forensic
Investigation Laboratory. The state-of-the-art facility on the State
Office Campus is nationally renowned for solving complex crimes using
cutting-edge DNA technology.
years, the forensic scientists and the biology professors had been casual
neighbors and essentially benign strangers who despite their
close geographic proximity existed in parallel universes of law
enforcement and academic research.
remarkable resource of the State Police forensic crime lab had been
right in our backyard all along, but it took some creative thinking
to link the two, Shub said. The State Police operate
a high-quality, nationally recognized facility. This gives us a chance
to become one of the first nationally ranked programs in forensics,
which will add to our departments overall reputation.
an innovative collaboration between the University and the State Police,
the next generation of forensic molecular biologists is being trained
in the Universitys new masters degree program. Jointly conceived
and taught, the 30-credit sequence in forensic molecular biology, begun
in the fall of 2001, capitalizes on the strengths of each institution
and creates synergy. The State Police made a substantial investment
to renovate and fully equip a teaching lab on the Universitys
East Campus that the graduate students use. The capstone of the degree
is an intensive, six-credit internship, either with the State Police
or other DNA analysis labs in the region. The new graduate program received
unusually quick approval from the New York State Education Department.
my mind, its the perfect fit, said State Police Inspector
Mark Dale, director of the forensic investigation lab. The University
faculty provides its forte, which is curriculum, training and research.
On the other side, we provide the application, the rolling up of sleeves
and doing forensic science on casework.
forensic sequence in the Universitys biology M.S. degree program
is believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation in which a
university and a state-run crime lab are so closely connected geographically.
The partnership was cemented in a memorandum of agreement the University
and State Police signed last year. For State Police employees
who make up half of the initial 14 students accepted the program
could not be more convenient.
can walk across from my office to the classroom in a couple minutes,
said Matt Kurimsky, B.S.00, a senior laboratory technician and
DNA analyst at the State Police crime lab. He earned his bachelors
degree in biology from the University and entered the new masters
program to meet qualifications for promotion to a supervisory level.
Kurimsky takes three courses per semester. The State Police provide
him flex time to attend classes and reimburse him for some tuition costs.
But its more than convenience that propelled the 24-year-old Queensbury,
N.Y., man back into the classroom.
graduate degree opens up a lot of job opportunities, and the specialized
training Im getting from this program is very important as I progress
in the field, Kurimsky said. And when I go to testify in
court as part of the job, these classes provide a great foundation.
who initially considered a career in law enforcement, feels that forensic
molecular biology is a better blend of his interests. I think
of it as civilian law enforcement, he said. Through DNA
analysis, Im the first person who knows if the defendant did it
or not. Your work might exon-erate a person of rape or convict a murderer.
Its exciting and it varies every day.
Nicole Zevotek, 30, a forensic scientist at the State Police crime lab
for nearly two years, it was that excitement that drew her away from
DNA-based research on Alzheimers and Parkinsons diseases
in academic and private industry labs. I get a great sense of
satisfaction in knowing Im playing an important part in our society
by solving crimes and freeing the innocent, said Zevotek, who
hopes to move up to a supervisory position with a masters degree.
classes give a broader sense of applications and how to discuss DNA
analysis in the courtroom, Zevotek said. Being able to work
with biology professors and State Police directors gives this program
the extra oomph that other programs dont have.
director of the State Police forensic investigation lab concurs. This
is unique in the United States, said Dale, who noted the University
of Illinois and University of Virginia collaborate with their respective
State Police crime labs, but neither enjoys the close geographic proximity
of the partnership in Albany.
addition to a solid foundation in molecular biology and other scientific
disciplines, students learn cutting-edge techniques of DNA analysis
in their labs. Theyll study how to track a biological trail from
the merest momentary and fragmentary contact: a trace of saliva on a
coffee cup, cigarette or chewing gum; a clothing fiber or shaft of hair;
a drop of blood or semen stain. A decade ago, forensic scientists required
a spot of blood the size of a half-dollar to make a DNA match. Today,
DNA technology has advanced to the point that the sample can be as small
as 20 microscopic blood cells.
are drawn to forensics because the mission is honorable, youre
performing a public service and you see the fruits of your efforts right
away, said Allison Eastman, B.S.75, supervisor of DNA services
with the State Police. She teaches a two-credit lab in the program.
Eastman earned her bachelors degree in biology with a minor in
chemistry at the University and a doctorate in microbiology and immunology
at Albany Medical College. She left her basic research work at a teaching
hospital to join the State Police forensic team six years ago.
get involved in all types of cases, from burglaries and assaults to
rapes and murders, Eastman said. Were getting better
and better with new techniques. She described a recent homicide
case in which a State Police DNA analyst managed to develop a full DNA
profile from the nose bridge of eyeglasses that eventually convicted
the perpetrator who lost the glasses at the scene. They solved another
case and convicted a drug dealer using only the trace DNA left on the
button of a pager left at the scene.
timing of the new collaborative graduate program could not be more auspicious,
according to Dale, a 29-year veteran of the State Police. Forensic
science is in the midst of a revolution, and the need for well-trained
forensic scientists is phenomenal, Dale said. He considers this
period in ever-changing DNA technology to represent the most important
paradigm shift in the field since the development of fingerprint analysis
at the end of the 19th century.
estimated there are currently about 10,000 forensic scientists working
in 500 labs across the U.S. But the number of items of biological evidence
submitted to crime labs has exploded, with an increase of more than
1,000 percent in the past five years. The result is too few scientists
to analyze the mountain of DNA evidence. Massive backlogs have occurred.
One survey determined that an additional 10,000 forensic scientists
would have to be hired to reduce the DNA analysis time below the acceptable
level of 30 days wait.
a very promising career track. It serves the needs of the University
and the State Police, said Joseph Mascarenhas, a biology professor
who helped develop the new program. State Police officials said students
graduating with a masters degree in forensic molecular biology
who are hired as a technical leader could earn salaries up to $70,000.
Dale said the partnership with the biology department is only the start. School of Business interns Kristen Baker, Don Ruf and Latoya Taitt are working in collaboration with the State Police to create a management information system that bar-codes all items of evidence for the forensic investigation lab. This could be the start of more programs together, Dale said. We found all the expertise we needed right next door.