Checking out what is in TU’s DNA

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By Writer Kyle Hobstetter, Townson University; November 1, 2021

https://www.towson.edu/news/2021/tu-humanremainslab.html?utm_source=news&utm_medium=newsfeed&utm_campaign=

Professor Kelly Elkins, TU Human Remains Identification Lab provide answers, experience

Professor Kelly Elkins, center, helped to open the Towson University Human Remains Identification Lab in 2018. In that time she has mentored students like Alexis Garloff ’22, left, and Jordan Brooks ’23, right, in forensic chemistry and DNA recovery. (Alex Wright/Towson University)

In early October, it was announced that an independent group of cold-case investigators claimed to have found the identity of the Zodiac Killer, one of America’s most notorious serial killers and a case that has gone unsolved for more than 50 years. The volunteer team, called the Case Breakers, consists of more than 40 former FBI officials, law enforcement officers, prosecutors and forensic scientists.

And Kelly Elkins, an associate professor in Towson University’s Department of Chemistry.

Elkins was initially approached by Case Breaker and University of Maryland lecturer Tom Mauriello because of her specialty in DNA recovery.

“I publish the research I’m doing with my students,” Elkins says. “We’ve had several projects involving DNA recovery, and the Case Breakers were interested in adding DNA expertise.”

For the past 10 years, Elkins has been sharing that experience as part of TU’s forensic chemistry program. One of her biggest goals was to give students hands-on, on-campus experience in DNA testing. In 2018, through two Fisher College Endowment grants and new building funds, she established the Towson University Human Remains Identification Lab (THRIL).

It supports student learning in next-generation sequencing methods and enables high-quality student and faculty research and community collaboration.

Along with THRIL, TU has a cutting-edge forensic chemistry teaching lab. According to Elkins, it is the only forensic next generation sequencing (NGS) lab in the country that provides hands-on forensic coursework and research for students that is not a private testing lab. “We saw a need for hands-on learning, and we wanted to meet that need for our students as they get ready to go into the workplace,” Elkins says. “Students get interviews for jobs based on taking classes here.”

Alexis Garloff ’22 is one of the students who works in the TU Human Remains Identification Lab. She’s worked in the lab since it was located in Smith Hall. (Photo by Alex Wright/Towson University)

Two students working with Elkins at THRIL are senior Alexis Garloff and junior Jordan Brooks, both forensic chemistry majors.

When THRIL started at TU, the program just had a small lab in Smith Hall. Now they have a state-of-the-art lab in the new Science Complex, which Garloff says felt like home when she first walked through the doors.

“This lab is giving us the experience that’s really focused on our concentration in DNA analysis,” Garloff says. “It’s crazy we’re getting these opportunities because once you get into the professional forensics world, this all they do, all day.

“Every day is DNA extraction, DNA purification, DNA quantification; there is a standard operating procedure within the forensic biology labs. To get that experience, here and now before getting out into the real world, into that field, is unmatched.”

Brooks just joined the THRIL team this term, and it’s her first time working with forensics. One of her favorite parts is that it’s a welcoming atmosphere.

“You can drop in any time,” Brooks says. “This experience has been really rewarding, and it makes me excited to continue to do research with Dr. Elkins. One of my biggest fears about doing research was having to do it alone or with someone who was not willing to help.

“Dr. Elkins, Alexis and the graduate students involved with THRIL have made me feel like I’m part of the team.”

Jordan Brooks ’23 just started working in the TU Human Remains Identification Lab this past fall. She’s excited to continue her research with Elkins, as well as the other students. (Photo by Alex Wright/Towson University)

For Elkins, she just enjoys working with students. She says the energy they bring to the class and to research projects is what not only keeps her young, but also helps make her a better scientist.

“I just feel fortunate to get to be part of their lives,” Elkins says. “We get this diverse mix of students who want to be here. And I love the fact that I get to not only teach them, but also I get to mentor them. I want to be able to help get them internships, get them jobs and get them experiences that help them have a successful and happy life.” 

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