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March 17, 2003

Midwest Forensics Research Center
Glamourless work in pursuit of the truth

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by Debra Gibson
They met in an airport, two men amidst thousands hustling through the terminal that day. One man was looking for answers; the other believed he held them.

Eventually, they met again, this time in an FBI cafeteria. At last, one convinced the other he had "the goods." In short order, a team of FBI forensics experts was pounding the hallways of the Ames Laboratory

Nope, this isn't the latest installment of the glitzy twice-weekly CSI television series. It is, in fact, the story (albeit a bit dramatized) of how Iowa State University was "discovered" as one of the nation's premier hotbeds for forensics research.

Ames Laboratory Director Tom Barton heard back in 1997 that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was searching for new forensic science and scientific protocols. Barton also knew that across the ISU campus, researchers were conducting countless investigations that ultimately could aid in forensics work. True story: Barton did meet an FBI deputy director in both an airport and the FBI cafeteria to pitch the university's work, and indeed, those conversations led to a campus visit by FBI agents.

What they found was a group of scientists teeming with research projects and ideas that benefit forensic science. Forensics refers to any aspect of science that relates to the law, or the use of technology to analyze evidence from crime scenes. This could include personal identification study (think fingerprints or DNA analysis), firearms IDs (recapturing serial numbers), psychiatric profiling, document examination (tracking forgeries or counterfeit operations, for instance), computer animation (recreating crime scenes or vehicle crashes) or statistical analysis (assessing probabilities).

In time, the FBI, along with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), granted funds to five forensics research projects on campus. They included:
  • A high-precision materials analysis created by the late Ames Lab scientist Velmer Fassel and further developed by chemists Samuel Houk and David Baldwin. It identifies elements that exist in exceptionally minute quantities, sometimes as small as parts per trillion. The process, known as laser ablation inductively coupled mass spectroscopy, can distinguish between otherwise identical-seeming materials. Because of its exceptional precision, the process often can be used to track trace materials evidence found at a crime scene back to its original source.

  • The use of orientation imaging microscopy to investigate the ways different explosives deform materials. On occasion, an explosion won't leave behind any chemical traces. But if agents know how an explosive characteristically deforms a particular metal, that explosive may be identified. Scott Chumbly, professor of materials science and engineering, headed this research project.

  • The restoration of ground-off serial numbers. Ronald Roberts and David Utrata, scientists with the Center for Nondestructive Evaluation, developed an imaging process that allows examiners to detect faint impressions of serial numbers that remain deep within a metal sample after the surface numbers have been ground off.

  • The development of a statistical measure for matching material evidence. A team of ISU scientists, led by associate provost Alicia Carriquiry, is working to establish probabilities that may determine the likelihood that, for instance, a bullet fragment discovered at a crime scene is derived from one or more bullets collected as evidence from a suspect.

  • The creation of a national online database to help veterinarians identify and respond to the most deadly livestock diseases that could result from bioterrorist acts. The database lists recognized experts for each of those diseases and the diagnostic facilities that currently are testing for the diseases. Principal investigators for this project are Gary Osweiler, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, and Walter Hyde, professor of veterinary medicine.

Enter state criminalists
By 1999, groups of Ames Laboratory and IPRT scientists were meeting with Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation examiners and criminalists to assess mutual interests. Scientists Robert Lipert and Ruth Shinar spent a week in the DCI crime lab learning its investigative protocols. Soon after, two forensic technology development projects were proposed and ultimately funded by IPRT. These were carried out by Microanalytical Instrumentation Center researchers and support engineers in the Ames Laboratory's Engineering Services Group.

Both projects aid in fingerprint identification. The first, a "glove box" designed by Lipert and constructed by Terrance Herrman, allows the easy introduction of evidence into its chamber, close observation of the fingerprint development process and control of both temperature and humidity. Liquid superglue is vaporized and distributed within the box's walls; superglue fumes are attracted to fingerprint materials, adhere to their ridges and valleys and form a lightly-colored polymer that examiners can then inspect under natural or other light sources. The DCI has been using the glove box for nearly a year, and its fingerprint examiners report they now develop 200 to 300 percent more fingerprints than they were using more conventional methods.

The second project was a vacuum chamber designed to develop more specialized fingerprints.

"There are difficult problems associated with developing and stabilizing fingerprints on plastic surfaces," Ames Laboratory's Todd Zdorkowski explained, "and this is the kind of evidence often found in clandestine labs or drug abuse sites."

Once considered too fragile for development and identification, those types of prints now can be stabilized by a novel chemical process developed by ISU student intern Elizabeth Nelson. Made from Ames Lab surplus piping, the vacuum chamber is large enough to hold a rifle, and has also been turned over to the DCI for use.

Forensics center is joint effort
As these and other productive relationships continued to thrive among ISU researchers and the DCI staff, examiners and criminalists began referring university scientists to their colleagues in surrounding states. The idea of a Midwest Forensics Resource Center was born in 2000, with the Ames Laboratory and ISU as its administrators. Initially, IPRT provided seed money to fund the center's pilot-phase projects. By 2002, however, its successes were evident enough that Congress approved $3 million for the center, with the National Institute of Justice overseeing the funding. Just last month, the center received word that Congress has approved an additional $3 million award.

These dollars will continue to fund projects that carry out the center's four main missions:
  • Forensic science education. "The crime labs are dependent upon new hires who have good scientific backgrounds," Zdorkowski explained. "They need access to a stream of bench scientists who can carry out strict scientific analyses, very accurately and rapidly, and under adversarial conditions. Forensic science is a high-stress scientific occupation. The pay is low, and the working conditions are hard." Unfortunately, he said, most labs aren't affiliated with a college or university forensic science program, and most have difficulty recruiting high-caliber candidates. They are also challenged in communicating their evolving research, development and education needs to university researchers and faculty. In one response to this, chemistry professor Patricia Thiel led an effort to design a forensic science concentration within ISU's chemistry's Ph.D. programs, and has championed wider interdisciplinary collaboration in forensic science research and education.

  • Forensic science professional development. Tight crime lab budgets often prohibit long-distance travel for criminalists and examiners to attend the continuing education classes necessary for professional certifications. So, the forensic science center now offers innovative training sessions throughout the region. The center also has produced experimental videotapes and DVDs of ISU scientists' presentations on their forensic work, and those visual aids will be distributed regionally to assess their professional training potential. Currently, the FBI is talking with the forensics center staff about the creation of traditional and computer-based curriculum materials for its "virtual academy."

  • Research and development: "Criminalists and examiners have everyday needs not always addressed in formal federal research proposals," Zdorkowski said. "And every examiner with whom I've spoken has had good ideas about how to do something better or faster or cheaper, but they have no time to do it." Therefore, the forensics center is soliciting research proposals from partnerships composed of university-based scientists and crime lab staffers. "Our immediate goal is to harness university science to the solution of crime lab problems in such a way that examiners can adopt the innovations," Zdorkowski explained. "But over time, we hope these applied problems will raise basic science questions that may lead to fundamental breakthroughs in forensic science."

  • Special casework: Occasionally, Zdorkowski said, crime labs are asked to analyze evidence that lies outside the capabilities of their facilities or examiners. For instance, the forensics center was recently asked to find a seed identification specialist on campus to assist the DCI. A burglary suspect had been apprehended with distinctive seeds attached to his clothing; equally unusual seeds had been discovered at the burglary site. Forensics center scientist Stanley Bajic tracked down an Iowa State seed scientist, the confiscated seed was identified and the resulting IDs were returned through the crime lab to local prosecutors.

In another case, two Iowa men died under unknown circumstances while sleeping in a tent, and family members of one of the men suspected foul play. In particular, they believed someone might have damaged the space heater in the tent to electrocute both men. An electrical safety specialist in the Ames Laboratory's Engineering Services Group examined the heater and concluded there was no obvious evidence to suggest tampering.

To better meet these distinctive casework needs, the MFRC hopes to establish a database corralling all the region's special resources so individual crime laboratories will have better access to the local expertise that exists in colleges, universities and specialized laboratories in the region, Zdorkowsi said.

So even with these shortages, is it safe to say these specialists don't depend on CSI for guidance and inspiration?

Shaking his head ruefully, Zdorkowski said, "CSI presents a very distorted and romanticized version of work in a crime lab. The work is not glamorous; the backlogs are huge and always growing. Most analytical procedures are well established and must be done with a high degree of analytical precision and careful attention to every detail associated with handling the evidence -- and performed on deadline.

"Every examiner's work must be inspected and corroborated by another examiner before it can be released, and some examiners also find their work challenged in public," he continued, "either by aggressive attorneys or in the press. The pay is modest, facilities tend to be crowded and the stress levels are high.

"But the one characteristic that seems to be common among all criminalists and examiners I know, and the one thing that seems to bring them to work each day, is their absolute love of the truth. Defense attorneys advocate for the suspect and prosecutors advocate for the victim, but examiners advocate for the truth."

ISU departments and their scientists currently conducting research pertinent to forensic science include:

Agronomy: Michael Thompson
Ames Laboratory: David Baldwin and John McClelland
Animal Science: Susan Lamont and Max Rothschild
Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology: Marit Nilsen-Hamilton
Botany: Lynn Clark and Harry Horner
Chemistry: Daniel Armstrong, Samuel Houk, Klaus Schmidt-Rohr, Patricia Thiel and Edward Yeung
Electrical and Computer Engineering: Douglas Jacobson
Entomology: Joel Coats
Food Science and Human Nutrition: Patricia Murphy
Materials Science and Engineering: Scott Chumbley and Bruce Thompson
Mechanical Engineering: John McClelland
Psychology: Gary Wells
Statistics: Alicia Carriquiry
Zoology and Genetics: Fred Janzen

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