For the Love of Research in Forensic Science

New Faculty

Dr. Madeleine Swortwood worked for the Food and Drug Administration and the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office before joining SHSU.

Dr. Madeleine Swortwood grew up wanting to be a lawyer and a doctor. She found the best of both worlds in forensic science.

“I gravitated more toward the sciences, but I was interested in the criminal justice aspects as well,” said Dr. Swortwood, an assistant professor in the Department of Forensic Science.

In high school, Dr. Swortwood shadowed forensic scientists in a local crime lab in analyzing fingerprints, testing ballistics evidence, and examining questioned documents. She was hooked.

“It was science that would help people in a different kind of way,” said Dr. Swortwood. “It was different than traditional medicine, but you get to solve crimes and help people.”

As an undergraduate student studying Forensic Science and Law at Duquesne University, Dr. Swortwood garnered two internships with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to test drive a career in that agency. The first investigated the illegal distribution of pharmaceuticals and the practice of replacing the prescription labels on the bottle to falsely indicate a higher dose. She evaluated vapors left behind in the bottles from adhesive removers. The second internship focused on creating a library of all drug types at the FDA using a handheld Raman spectrometer system, which then could be used to compare unknown samples.

Instead of working for the FDA, Swortwood decided to pursue her doctorate in chemistry at Florida International University, focusing on forensic toxicology. She had a keen interest in post-mortem investigations to determine how a person died and the cause and manner of death. She acquired an internship at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office and was later employed for a year as a toxicologist during her last year of graduate school. There, she was immersed in the day-to-day practices, which including sample acquisitions, blood alcohol testing, drug screening and testing, and interpretation of results.

“We started to get drug overdoses from synthetic cathinones,” Dr. Swortwood said. “Miami was a big cocaine city, and there were a lot of cocaine overdose deaths. There also was a lot of prescription overdoses because of the large number of pain clinics in the area.”

Dr. Swortwood also worked on the case of a Miami man accused of eating another man’s face before being shot by police. Even though the man was suspected of being high on bath salts, all the office could identify was THC, a main component of marijuana. “We needed better detection methods and better investigative tools,” she said.

While attending a conference, Dr. Swortwood was presented a unique opportunity for a post-doctoral fellowship working with the “Queen of THC” Dr. Marilyn Huestis of the Chemistry and Drug Metabolism Section of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Dr. Swortwood conducted three studies at NIDA, two of which examined in-utero exposure of fetuses to drugs and alcohol and a controlled cannabis administration study to determine levels of intoxication from smoking, vaporizing, and eating marijuana samples. The study may have a major impact on field sobriety testing in the future, especially as more states decriminalize marijuana.

The in-utero studies examined alternative opiate addiction treatment drugs for nursing mothers and concentrations of alcohol and nicotine markers in electively terminated pregnancies. The two drug alternatives for methadone -- buprenorphine and a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone (referred to as suboxone) -- were found to be safe for nursing and expecting mothers, respectively. The study of electively terminated pregnancies found high levels of nicotine and alcohol in fetuses. “Those fetuses are being exposed at a very, very young age in the womb,” Dr. Swortwood said.
“I really enjoyed being on the cutting edge of performing research that is relevant to society,” said Dr. Swortwood. “I was excited that what I would do would have an impact on the world.”

Dr. Swortwood has a passion for research and wants to instill that in her students at Sam Houston State University. She even incorporates research and chemistry into her favorite hobby of cooking. She has been gluten and dairy free for 15 years, “way before it was cool,” and used her craft to help determine the best ingredients and processes for baking, she said.

“I like to do research, and I like to do casework,” said Dr. Swortwood. “I really enjoy this program and it is a great environment to foster research.”

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