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Forensic Molecular Biology: Using DNA Technology to Track Down Crime

By Vera Dordick

Biological Sciences Professor David Shub
Biological Sciences Professor David Shub

From his office window, Professor David Shub, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, can look eastward across the University’s 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.

For 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.

“The 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 department’s overall reputation.”

Through an innovative collaboration between the University and the State Police, the next generation of forensic molecular biologists is being trained in the University’s new master’s 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 University’s 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.

“In my mind, it’s 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.”

DNA analyst Matt Kurmisky uses a special light source as he searches for biological stains on a pair of shorts. The light uses filters and a high-powered lamp to make it easier to see semen and saliva.
DNA analyst Matt Kurimsky uses a special light source as he searches for biological stains on a pair of shorts. The light uses filters and a high-powered lamp to make it easier to see semen and saliva.

The forensic sequence in the University’s 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.

“I 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 bachelor’s degree in biology from the University and entered the new master’s 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 it’s more than convenience that propelled the 24-year-old Queensbury, N.Y., man back into the classroom.

“A graduate degree opens up a lot of job opportunities, and the specialized training I’m 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.”

Kurimsky, 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, I’m 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. It’s exciting and it varies every day.”

Nicole Zeotek and Matt Kurmisky perform tests on evidence from a forensic training case.
Nicole Zevotek and Matt Kurmisky perform tests on evidence from a forensic training case.

For 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 Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases in academic and private industry labs. “I get a great sense of satisfaction in knowing I’m 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 master’s degree.

“The 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 don’t have.”

The 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.

In addition to a solid foundation in molecular biology and other scientific disciplines, students learn cutting-edge techniques of DNA analysis in their labs. They’ll 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.

“Students are drawn to forensics because the mission is honorable, you’re 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 bachelor’s 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.

Allison Eastman, B.S.'75, supervisor of DNA services with the State Police, shows Nicole Zevotek how to use computer software to interpret electronic fragment analysis data. The final result is a complete DNA profile that can help identify the source of a crime scene sample, such as blood in a murder suspect's car.
Allison Eastman, B.S.'75, supervisor of DNA services with the State Police, shows Nicole Zevotek how to use computer software to intrepret electronic fragment analysis data. The final result is a complete DNA profile that can help identify the source of a crime scene sample, such as blood in a murder suspect's car.

“We get involved in all types of cases, from burglaries and assaults to rapes and murders,” Eastman said. “We’re 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.
The current media obsession with forensic science has added to the interest in the field, according to Donald Orokos, an instructor in the biology department. “You can’t turn on the TV without running across a show about forensic biology and DNA evidence these days,” said Orokos, who has a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology, has taught one of the two required labs, and is involved with the program’s administration. “This field is changing so quickly, training in the latest technology is very important. But we’re not just making them into technicians. We’re training them to think like scientists.”

"Forensic science is in the midst of a revolution, and the need for well-trained forensic scientists is phenomenal." – Inspector Mark Dale, director of the NY State Police Forensic Investigation Laboratory
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The 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.

Dale 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.

Biological Sciences Professor Joseph Mascarenhas
Biological Sciences Professor Joseph Mascarenhas

“It’s 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 master’s 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.”

 


 

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