One of the great things about a project such as INTREPID Forensics, that is interdisciplinary and involves people with various academic backgrounds, is that you get to broaden your horizons. You learn a lot about different subject areas and research approaches – and you sometimes even get to participate in activities you’d have never dreamed about engaging in!
I was asked to help Marwan and Alex by swabbing DNA off metal disks that Alex had deposited fingerprints on when he hijacked a car bomb workshop in San Diego for his project. Briefly (veeeery briefly), Alex wants to detect fingerprints on these metal disks that have been subjected to extreme conditions, and Marwan wants to detect DNA.
As Alex, and thus his DNA profile, is male, they needed a female to take the DNA samples, so that Marwan could more easily detect cross-contamination, if there was any.
The swabbing took place in the Space Research Centre’s clean room – a room that you enter via airlocks, wearing protective clothing, and that is equipped with various filters to ensure a controlled level of contamination. Trying to control and minimise contamination is especially important in research such as Marwan’s, where you are trying to detect a very small, highly degraded sample, and need to ensure that what you detect is what you are looking for, e.g. the DNA that you initially deposited, and not due to contamination of the material.
Marwan and I got an induction into using the clean room by John Holt, Alex’s highly motivated and knowledgeable technician, who is involved in space research as well as Leicester’s recent claim to fame, the discovery of the remains of Richard III.
We got to suit up like Ghostbusters (which we cool cats are already used to), and spend several hours
- ensuring that all surfaces within the room, as well as the materials and samples we brought into the room were clean,
- trying to identify the unique markings Alex had made on the metal disks to help distinguish them
- using dry and wet swabs to collect DNA samples
- labelling the collected DNA samples
- taking notes of the exact procedure so Marwan and Alex know precisely what happened when they write up the methods sections of their chapters/papers
- … and more…
This was a really exciting experience for me, as I’ve always been interested in genetics and DNA, and even took physiology and genetics modules during my undergraduate studies. Basically I felt like a (geeky) kid in a (nerdy) sweet shop, bouncing around the clean room in my Ghostbusters suit armed with DNA swabs. I just hope Alex and Marwan weren’t too taken aback by my enthusiasm 😉 It was absolutely amazing to be involved in this kind of research, and it was a fantastic experience to work with Alex and Marwan.
Thanks to John for taking the time to brief us about the procedures for working in the clean room, and many thanks to Alex and Marwan for trusting me with your samples! Good luck with your projects! 🙂