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Fueling a Forensics Passion

ALBANY, N.Y. (April 10, 2017) – Justine Giffen is on the verge of publishing a second academic paper and will earn her doctorate degree in chemistry by the end of this year.

Look back – it’s hard to believe she came to UAlbany with little research to no experience.

“Before UAlbany, I earned my bachelor’s degree in chemistry from a different institution. It was a great experience. I loved it there. But the focus was more on textbooks and much less on research,” Justine said. “I knew for graduate school I need to find a program that would offer more hands-on experience.”

UAlbany’s graduate chemistry program was the right choice.

Justine is a fifth year Ph.D. student in the lab of associate chemistry professor Rabi Musah. Under Musah’s mentorship, she’s taken the lead on developing several forensics research projects, including a unique method to determine an individual’s time of death.

Blowflies – also known as Calliphoridae – are typically the first type of insect to arrive to a body that’s deceased. The mother blowfly usually arrives at the corpse within 5-15 minutes after initial death and will lay eggs within a few hours. Determining when a blowfly’s eggs were laid is valuable for investigators, as it can give an accurate time of death.

The issue? Blowfly eggs are microscopic and not easy to identify.

Musah’s lab, led by Justine, are using mass spectrometry – the study of masses within a sample – to try and make blowfly egg identification simple and immediate for investigators. To attract the flies, the lab uses carrion flowers, which emit an odor that smells like rotting flesh. Their initial findings are expected to be published soon.

Justine’s also the lead author on separate research that identifies salvia plants. The study was recently published in Phytochemical Analysis.

"Justine's role on these projects has been absolutely critical," Musah said. "I've watched her grow tremendously. She's learned how to ask the right research questions, devise experiments that answer those questions, and be good with her hands in the lab. All very important in this field of work."

Justine’s dad is a licensed funeral home director and worked for 10 years in law enforcement as a death investigator. Intrigued by his work, she grew up watching crime shows, like forensics files and NCIS, with her mom. Her brother was intrigued too. He’s in residency now to become a forensic pathologist.

“Death runs in our family,” Justine joked.

A native of Montgomery, N.Y., Justine’s dream after graduation is to follow in her dad’s footsteps and work as a medicolegal death investigator in New York City. On a lighter note, she also loves to bake cakes and said culinary school is the backup plan.

Her advice for other UAlbany students interested in research? Stick with it.

“A lot of students get really frustrated in the lab if they don’t understand something. They just kind of give up,” Justine said. “I remember being in that boat. Just remember, understanding takes time. Also, never be afraid to look to others for help. Professors can be mentors. The internet can be too. YouTube crash courses are an amazing resource.”

Learn more about Justine’s work by visiting Rabi Musah’s research lab website. Additional information on Musah is available on her University expert page.

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