Solving Crimes with DNA

Recently Zarlab hosted the first-ever Undergraduate Bioinformatics Speaker Series. Our lab has been steadily growing as our undergraduate research program becomes more robust, and we decided it was time we gave the undergrads an outlet of their own. Recently, the Computational Genetics Student Group (CGSG) was formed to serve the research, networking and extracurricular educational needs of the bioinformatics students (and those potentially interested in bioinformatics) at UCLA.

For our first event, we chose to explore the field of forensics and learn how bioinformatics and statistics can be used to solve crimes by analyzing DNA. Associate professor Kirk Lohmueller and Jill Licht, senior criminalist with the LA County Sheriff’s Department, gave insights into murder investigations where they served as expert witnesses. Kirk spoke about how the case was overthrown by the judge due to overlooking key forensic evidence. At the second trial, Kirk was able to testify to a potential second suspect whose blood was found at the crime scene. However, even with the additional DNA evidence, the jury still convicted the primary suspect based on a child’s eye witness account!

Jill was able to provide stories of what the day-to-day life of a forensic biologist is like. At least one week every month, she has to remain alert and ready to drive to the scene of a crime 24-hours a day. Sometimes she’ll get the call at 2 a.m. and have to drive an hour to get to the location. She explained how the Los Angeles Police Department only has jurisdiction in the city of Los Angeles, but the sheriff’s department oversees the rest of LA County. That means she could be called to anywhere from Pasadena to Long Beach. For someone who is squeamish at the sight of blood, Jill says she is able to handle it at work. The ultimate goal is to determine the story behind the scene, and she must stay focused in order to do her best work at the scene. Could you handle working with blood and brains?

If you are interested in this and future talks, leave us a comment below.