NIJ grant will help fund research project in chemistry, forensic science

Katarina Ruehl (left) and Matt Burleson monitor experiments that could lead to better test results in sexual assault cases.

Katarina Ruehl (left) and Matt Burleson monitor experiments that could lead to better test results in sexual assault cases.

Western Carolina University Chemistry and Physics Department head David Evanoff and forensic research scientist Brittania Bintz are hoping a $346,740 grant from the National Institute of Justice will help produce a faster and less expensive method of confirming the presence of human bodily fluids on samples, which would be useful to the forensic science community when testing rape kits and other sexual assault evidence.

The grant will help fund a joint research project that Evanoff and Bintz began a few years ago. The idea developed when an exchange student from the Netherlands, Linda van den Broek, came to WCU to work in the chemistry lab for a semester. Evanoff and Bintz discussed what would be a good project for the undergraduate forensic science student to work on that also would involve Evanoff’s expertise with surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy, a technique also known as SERS that measures how a laser interacts with the bonds of a molecule.

Their idea was to see if they could use SERS to detect bodily fluids. If so, it would be useful at either crime scenes or in labs when forensic analysts are trying to confirm that a piece of evidence has a bodily fluid on it.

Currently, when forensic evidence is collected for DNA analysis, the sample is put through a series of tests to determine if the evidence swab contains a biological material. Presumptive tests are used to establish a probability that a bodily fluid or tissue is present. Confirmatory tests are conducted to identify specific biological materials.

Not only are those tests fairly expensive and time consuming, but they are prone to both false positives and false negatives, Evanoff said.

“We thought maybe there could be a way we could do this cheaper, faster and more reliably,” Evanoff said. “That’s how the idea got started. What we’d like to show is that SERS serological screening can be confirmatory and can take place in one step instead of two.”

Van den Broek made some progress before returning to the Netherlands, Evanoff said. Alexandra Cassell of Reisterstown, Maryland, who graduated last May with a bachelor’s degree in forensic science and environmental health, picked up where she left off, helping to collect more preliminary data on the feasibility of the idea.

Matt Burleson uses a laser to conduct Raman spectroscopy experiments to identify human bodily fluids

Matt Burleson uses a laser to conduct Raman spectroscopy experiments to identify human bodily fluids

Evanoff currently has two students participating in the research. Matt Burleson, a chemistry graduate student from Spruce Pine, is in his second year working on the project. Burleson spoke to several professors before deciding to join Evanoff and Bintz’s research.

“It sounded awesome to see how you could apply these nanoparticles that we’re making to different things,” Burleson said.

His goal is to see if he can make an evidence swab that is coated with metallic nanoparticles, which is what would make the SERS technique possible. If so, then a swab could be used at a crime scene to take evidence from the sample and a forensic analyst could use Raman spectroscopy without interacting with the sample.

“Matt has some nice data that shows that the swabs do allow for this Raman spectroscopy to take place,” Evanoff said. “That gave Britt and me the confidence that we could submit a proposal to NIJ – that this was a good enough idea to put forward.”

Burleson will present his data at the 68th annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences Young Forensic Scientist Forum on Tuesday, Feb. 23, in Las Vegas.

One of the things Evanoff and Bintz requested in the grant proposal was a research assistant, a position that was filled by Burleson this semester.

Also working on the project is sophomore Katarina Ruehl, a chemistry major from Barnardsville, who became involved in the work in the fall. Ruehl, who also is a member of the cross country and track teams, plans to work on the project through graduate school. Her goal is to perfect the swabs to make them as accurate and as useful as possible.

“When I heard about this research project, I thought it was particularly interesting because I could clearly see how it could have an impact on the everyday needs of people in the forensic field,” Ruehl said.

The grant also allowed for the hiring of a post-doctoral research associate. Vinay Bhardwaj, who graduated from Florida International University with a doctorate in biomedical engineering, was recently hired to fill that position for the next two years.

“I’m really excited for my students to have this opportunity to work with a post-doctoral researcher,” Evanoff said. “Dr. Bhardwaj’s skill set is significantly different from my own. Not only will his expertise enhance the students’ education, but they’ll also have a great opportunity to see a different viewpoint of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

If this method proves to be faster and cheaper, Evanoff said it will help with the backlog of rape kits that several major metropolitan areas are faced with.

“Overall, we’re focusing on developing this testing methodology for the evidence generated in sexual assault cases,” Evanoff said. “Backlogs of this type of evidence are all too common. It’s important for us to give the analysts a new paradigm that could significantly decrease the time needed to fully assess a piece of evidence and ensure that only evidence that will produce definitive DNA typing is sent on for further analysis.”

For more information about the project, contact Evanoff at 828-227-3667, or devanoff@wcu.edu.