WVU Forensic Scientist’s Work Stranger Than Fiction

West Virginia University professor Glen Jackson’s work is the stuff of television shows – literally.

No stranger to the rapidly-evolving field of forensic science, Jackson – who received his doctorate at WVU and returned as the Ming Hsieh Distinguished Professor of Forensic and Investigative Science after a three-year stint at Ohio University – has been a guest on the Nancy Grace show, and his work on trace remains was also featured in an episode of” Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Thanks to a two-year National Institute of Justice grant for $283,464 received in January, preliminary work has already begun on research aimed at determining how the amino acids in human hair may be used to help identify criminals and their victims.

But that’s only the beginning of this scientific tale, as approximately 150 volunteers from across the country will soon be recruited to help with this research by snipping some hair and sending it to researchers in Morgantown, Jackson said.

“There are lots of variables that can make hair different. For example, where you live can be directly related to the food you eat and your diet. That’s why we’re looking for a wide geographic distribution of volunteers, hopefully two to four from each state, although it may be more difficult from states like South Dakota while West Virginia won’t be a problem,” Jackson said.

A specialized instrument known as a mass spectrometer, which measures the mass of molecules, will be used to measure different types of carbon in the hair samples, he said.

Mass spectrometry is already being used in crime labs to confirm the presence of drugs such as cocaine, as well as explosive residues in a suspect’s baggage or hands, ignitable liquid residues and the identity of inks or pigments, Jackson said.

He believes this new research about the chemical makeup of human hair may someday help complement crime scene DNA identification.

Not unlike a television show’s plot, a DNA sample collected at a crime scene is run through a database looking for a match.

But that’s more challenging when none of the hair evidence has a root, which contains the nuclear DNA, thus allowing a possible match to be found, Jackson said.

“If you don’t have a known, the DNA analysis is literally useless. But the ability to tell three or four things about a person based on these chemical measurements in hair could provide an investigative lead, even if an individual’s DNA is not in a database,” he said.

This ongoing work builds on his already successful scientific efforts to classify groups of individuals by Body Mass Index and age.

“Having an idea what age a person is can dramatically increase the chance that a suspect is identified. For example, it we can say there’s a 90 percent chance this person is over the age of 45, that could be really helpful because most crimes are committed by younger people,” Jackson said.

Jackson – who received his education in England – was in middle school when his love for science and reading about the natural world began to take hold.

He said biology and chemistry were favorite high school subjects.

It’s still not uncommon for him to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the work he loves, Jackson said. Every day is different, and he considers himself blessed to do challenging work that can also make a difference for others – especially people who are waiting for justice as law enforcement officials piece together what happened to a loved one, he said.