Unreliable or improper forensic science has contributed to more than half of the wrongful convictions in the United States that have been overturned with DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization.
Forensics has long been considered an applied rather than a scholarly field—and without an adequate research base, many forensic testing methods lack proper scientific validation. Fortunately, following the release of a 2009 National Academy of Sciences Report that brought these issues to light, there has been an interest in increasing federal funding for forensic science research.
“With the discovery of so many errors in prosecution, the power of forensic science has become so much greater and has drastically improved from several years ago,” said Victor Weedn, chair of the George Washington University’s Department of Forensic Sciences in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
Still, he says that there is more progress to be made, and he aspires for GW to be at the forefront of developing cutting-edge forensics scholarship.
“I would like GW to have the premier forensics program in the country,” said Dr. Weedn, who joined the university in July 2012. His long-term goal is to create an interdisciplinary forensic science Ph.D. program at GW—a degree that is virtually non-existent in the United States.
The forensic pathologist may be dreaming big, but Dr. Weedn is on his way to making his vision a reality, thanks in part to a new collaboration agreement between GW and PerkinElmer Health Sciences Inc., which has enabled the department to build a mass spectrometry lab.
A New Collaboration
Mass spectrometers are sophisticated instruments that identify the molecular makeup of a sample so forensic scientists can determine the type of drug or trace evidence found at a crime scene or drug, toxin or metabolite found in a biologic tissue or fluid specimen.
Dr. Weedn said he desired to collaborate with a company that was producing some of the most innovative mass spectrometry tools on the market, in order to create a world-class forensic chemistry lab, develop more research and eventually recruit Ph.D. candidates.
“There has been a revolution in mass spectrometry in the past few years, and I believe it is the future of forensic science investigation,” Dr. Weedn said. “PerkinElmer has created instruments that are very intriguing.”
PerkinElmer is giving GW’s Department of Forensic Sciences $600,000 over the next four years for efforts agreed upon by both parties in addition to the donation of a new piece of equipment. In turn, the department has bought additional instruments from the company at a discounted price.
“PerkinElmer has developed a portfolio of mass spectrometry solutions that are designed to be faster, smarter, modular and easy to operate," said Jon DiVincenzo, PerkinElmer's president of Environmental Health. "We are thrilled to be GW’s collaborator of choice and believe that our combination of innovative technology and know-how in forensics can help Dr. Weedn and his team realize their goals for the forensic sciences program at GW."
The department has acquired three of the newest and most robust mass spectrometry instruments PerkinElmer offers. The forensic science faculty will act as independent, credible partners to test the instruments and show how they are useful to the forensics community.
World’s Largest Academic Forensic Chemistry Group
In addition to the new equipment, Dr. Weedn has hired forensic chemists Ira Lurie, Mehdi Moini and Ioan “Nelu” Marginean to work in the mass spectrometry lab, located on the Mount Vernon Campus
Before coming to GW, Dr. Lurie was a senior research chemist at the Drug Enforcement Administration, where he served as the agency’s expert in liquid phase separations, and Dr. Moini most recently worked as a research scientist at the Smithsonian Institution. Dr. Marginean received his Ph.D. in chemistry from GW in 2006, where he was a research assistant under Professor of Chemistry Akos Vertes. He went on to work as a senior research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory—a group at the forefront of proteomics research—before returning to GW last year.
These three researchers along with two existing forensic chemists—Professor Walter Rowe and Professor Ed Bartick—will make GW’s team the largest academic forensic chemistry group in the world.
The first project the forensic chemists will undertake is to use the PerkinElmer equipment to identify synthetic cannabinoids—types of drugs designed specifically to evade detection by conventional methods. The team will use the time-of-flight mass spectrometers to identify these compounds, showing that the PerkinElmer instrumentation has the speed and ability to see a wide diversity of agents, Dr. Weedn said.
The new faculty members and equipment will allow the department to build a strong scholarship base in forensic chemistry. The researchers and PerkinElmer are looking forward to creating a premier program, which will hopefully strengthen forensic science methods and practices throughout the country.
“We want to generate high-quality research that aims at answering fundamental questions in the field,” Dr. Marginean said.