Professor Kelly Elkins, TU Human Remains Identification Lab provide answers, experience
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, Dr. Elkins, along with Dr. Cynthia Zeller, 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. “Our students are getting interviews for jobs based on taking classes here.”
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.”
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."
The Towson University Human Remains Identification Lab’s services are open to the public. Quotes are available upon request and will depend upon the number of samples and services selected. Services include:
Information provided by THRIL is for information purposes and not for entry or upload to DNA databases or databanks or used for legal purposes that require analysis be conducted by an ISO or ASCLD-LAB accredited laboratory.
For more information about THRIL, check out some of their recent and ongoing projects: