Students/Faculty Receive Forensic Science Foundation Grants


Two doctoral students in Forensic Science and their faculty advisors received awards from the Forensic Science Foundation to advance their research.

Two Ph.D. students and their faculty advisors received grants from the Forensic Science Foundation (FSF) to pursue studies on a screening method to detect fentanyl analogs in blood samples and to develop a quicker and easier way to extract DNA from bone samples.

The FSF Lucas Grants are designed to help investigators in original, in-depth, problem oriented-research. These grants were presented to LeAnn Michelle Harrel and Assistant Professor Sheree Hughes-Stamm for DNA and bone testing and Kaitlyn Palmquist and Assistant Professor Madeleine Swortwood to develop a screening tool for fentanyl in crime labs.

Synthetic fentanyl analogs, which can be up to 10,000 times more powerful than morphine, have been linked to a rash of drug overdose death cases across the country. Fentanyl analogs are not screened for regularly in the laboratory, and there are significant costs to have outside labs analyze these samples. The grant will allow the Department of Forensic Science to purchase standardized and certified samples of these drugs to develop benchmarks for variations that may be seen in lab.

The fentanyl study will use advanced, high-resolution technology, called Time-of-Flight (TOF), to identify different types of fentanyl in blood samples by determining exact elementary composition. The results could provide benchmarks for fentanyl analog detection, cutting down on the time and scope of laboratory investigation needed to identify the drug in criminal and death investigations.

Although blood and cheek swabs traditionally are used to extract DNA, in cases of mass disasters, missing persons, severe fires, and mass graves, skeletonized remains may be the only options available for testing. Traditionally, the method for extracting DNA from teeth and bones involves a complex laboratory procedure that includes cleaning, pulverizing and demineralizing bone samples before isolating and purifying the DNA. To expedite the process, the team at Sam Houston State University will investigate the use of small bone fragments to extract DNA and compare the quality and quantity of samples retrieved.

“This option has the potential to save time, conserve the sample, and reduce the risk of contamination by eliminating the need to powder the bone sample, whilst retaining the ability to automate the process (if desired),” said Harrel. “This research will explore the effectiveness of this approach with environmentally challenged bone samples.”

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