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Fighting Crime with Chemistry

Ewelina Mistek, right, has received a National Institute of Justice fellowship for her work in the Lednev Laboratory with Professor of Chemistry Igor Lednev, left.

ALBANY, N.Y. (May 24, 2018) – Forensic scientist and chemistry Ph.D. student Ewelina Mistek has been chosen as one of 20 graduate students nationwide to complete a STEM graduate research fellowship funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

The Graduate Research Fellowship program is designed to increase the pool of scholars who are “working to address the challenges of crime and justice in the United States, particularly at the state and local levels.” According to chemistry Professor Igor Lednev and now backed by the DOJ, Mistek is well on her way to doing exactly that.

During her fellowship, Mistek, a native of Poland, will continue her work in the Lednev Laboratory to identify and analyze small traces of body fluid to quickly see the unique biochemical signature of a sample. Lednev expects that this work will revolutionize the field of forensic science by providing crime scene investigators with more information than the biochemical methods in use today.

To do this, Mistek uses spectroscopy, the study of the interaction between matter and electromagnetic radiation, to identify characteristics of body fluid specifically in a way that overcomes a major challenge investigators face when analyzing crime scenes: destruction of the sample.

For example, by using statistical analysis combined with a method called attenuated total reflection Fourier transform-infrared (ATR FT-IR) spectroscopy, Mistek is able to quickly and accurately tell whether blood belongs to a human, cat or dog. Because of her research, Lednev, who works closely with the New York State Police Crime Lab System, anticipates that police will eventually be able to use a device the size of a cell phone to determine the species of blood at a hit-and-run scene, for example.

Most existing techniques used to analyze body fluid destroy the sample, posing a challenge if questions remain after the initial analysis is complete. Mistek’s three-year fellowship will also focus on refining research on ways to quickly analyze a sample without destroying it.

The fellowship will cover all of Mistek’s research expenses and a stipend and, as part of this, she also will develop a spectroscopic library and statistical models for identifying dry traces of the main body fluids and for determining a donor’s sex and race based on a dry bloodstain.

“I couldn’t have wished for a better opportunity than to conduct my research here at the University at Albany under the mentorship of Dr. Lednev,” said Mistek. “Every journey starts with a dream, and mine led me all the way here to help improve new methods of forensic science.”

Lednev said Mistek’s receipt of the prestigious funding is indicative of the emerging importance of this type of science in investigating crime scenes.

“Receiving the NIJ Graduate Research Fellowship is a strong testimony of a great potential of Ewelina’s research to make a significant contribution to practical forensic science,” said Lednev. “She’s developed the ability to learn fast new techniques and conduct individual research projects with great success. Her innovative work has been already well accepted by the scientific community as evident from her awards, including a prestigious Coblentz Society Award, presentations at national and international conferences and publications in top scientific journals.”

Mistek has received additional funding for her work: She received a NIJ travel award to present at the NIJ Forensic Science Symposium at the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy in Orlando in February 2018, and received the Francis Dunstan Travel Award to present her work at the International Conference on Raman Spectroscopy in Korea this summer. In addition, Ewelina has traveled internationally to present at the Spring SciX 2018 conference in Glasgow, United Kingdom. Her student poster was selected for an oral presentation by the organizers.

Lednev is also adding a new award to the Lednev Laboratory this year; He was just announced as the recipient of the NY-NJ Section of the Society for Applied Spectroscopy Gold Medal Award. He will accept the award at the Eastern Analytical Symposium in Princeton this fall.

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