Crime scene samples are often taken from surfaces that also contain plant, animal and microbial life, which can provide important information for investigators. At Syracuse University, Amber Vandepoele ’22 is in the process of optimizing a method to separate bacterial, plant and human cells by exploiting cell size and cellular membrane sensitivity. “Forensic samples may contribute relevant information regarding a location or interaction and aid in human identification,” says Vandepoele, a double major in biochemistry and forensic science in the College of Arts and Sciences who has been working in Michael Marciano’s bioforensics lab. “This separation method allows complex DNA samples to be interpreted more easily and assist in tracking them from their collected location back to their origin.”
Vandepoele’s interest in the biological and forensic sciences began long before she arrived in Syracuse. After taking her first forensic science class in high school in Aliso Viejo, California, she searched for a university that would allow her to explore forensic science while also providing a rigorous scientific course load. “After learning about the groundbreaking research at Syracuse University’s Forensic and National Security Sciences Institute (FNSSI) and its partnerships with leading companies and agencies in the field, I knew it was where I would develop the skills needed for a career in forensic science,” she says. Vandepoele’s majors have given her the opportunity to expand her comprehension of fundamental science principles and their application. “I’ve gained a deep understanding of both chemistry and biology, and their intersection,” she says. “Through studying forensic science, I have been able to apply my knowledge of biochemistry, specifically by observing the intersection of science and law.”
After learning about the groundbreaking research at Syracuse University’s Forensic and National Security Sciences Institute and its partnerships with leading companies and agencies in the field, I knew it was where I would develop the skills needed for a career in forensic science.
Within her first week at Syracuse, she reached out to Marciano, research assistant professor and director for FNSSI research, and became an undergraduate researcher in his lab—the first student ever to do so as a first-year student. “When I joined, I shadowed some of the graduate students and learned lab techniques through practice,” she says. Marciano advised and guided her in establishing a solid foundation of biological principles to be successful in the forensic science field. While her research has been successful, it is not without its challenges. Vandepoele says when the cells she was studying would disappear or eight-hour workdays would yield no results, she blamed herself—but came to realize the importance of that process. “After months of lab work, I began to understand that research comes with many setbacks and failures. I believe the ups and downs I experienced in my project have made me a more patient and detail-oriented researcher, and I am willing to learn from all the challenges along the way.”
A Wealth of Undergraduate Opportunities
In addition to her independent research project, Vandepoele is gaining applied science experience and building a professional network while working alongside both Marciano and research assistant professor of forensic science Jonathan Adelman as well as experts from NicheVision Forensics, who develop and distribute innovative DNA analysis software for forensic laboratories worldwide. The team is developing a cutting-edge machine learning method capable of determining the number of contributors in DNA sequenced based mixtures, which will eliminate time-consuming data interpretation and enable analysts to arrive at more confident conclusions faster.
Vandepoele has received two grants through SOURCE (Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement). The first was a yearlong grant for 2019-20, which funded reagents and materials for her independent research project, as well as the opportunity for her to present her research at an upcoming national conference. The second grant allowed her to do full-time research in Syracuse over the summer.
In the fall, she will be joining the Defense Forensic Science Center as a research apprentice through the Army Educational Outreach Program (AEOP) Apprenticeships and Fellowships program. “I’m grateful for this opportunity to learn from practicing forensic scientists and conduct research at the premier forensic center of the U.S. Department of Defense,” she says. “As an AEOP apprentice, I will have the unique opportunity to work with forensic experts and create connections that will be extremely valuable to my career path.”
She has also been selected as one of four student ambassadors for the 32nd annual International Symposium on Human Identification, the largest forensic DNA conference in the world. As an ambassador, she will network with companies in the field, attend workshops on the latest forensic techniques and technologies, and present her bioforensics research at an international conference.
A Champion for Others
Vandepoele is passionate about supporting students in their pursuit of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and career paths. As a member of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs Dean’s Team at Syracuse, she is part of a group of student ambassadors who participate in events for prospective students and share their experiences.
She also enjoys serving on the executive board of the Syracuse University chapter of the American Chemical Society, where she helps plan community-based events, such as volunteering at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo, the Museum of Science and Technology, and the Boys & Girls Club. The society focuses on University-based events such as resume workshops and alumni panels. “Through my involvement, I am able to share my passion for forensic science and chemistry with my peers at Syracuse University and local youth in the surrounding communities,” she says.
But the work she is most proud of is her role as the founder and president of the Undergraduate Forensic Science Student Association (UFSSA). “When I was a first-year student, there were no organizations for students who shared a deep interest in forensic science and the various career paths and opportunities within the field,” she says. “I created UFSSA as a space where students can learn and help each other succeed academically, socially and professionally.”
Vandepoele is pleased to see the impact the UFSSA’s workshops and panels have had on the forensic science student community. “Our members have learned from professionals at federal agencies like the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; connected with researchers at Syracuse University; and gained insight on how their forensic science coursework can be applied in the real world,” she says.
When I was a first-year student, there were no organizations for students who shared a deep interest in forensic science and the various career paths and opportunities within the field. I created UFSSA as a space where students can learn and help each other succeed academically, socially and professionally.
Vandepoele’s academic interests and research have affirmed her desire to become a DNA analyst, and she plans to pursue a master’s degree in forensic science at Syracuse. Recently, she became the lab manager of Marciano’s bioforensics lab, where she shadowed graduate students three years ago. One of her duties is to mentor new students who join the lab—a task she is proud to see come full circle, she says. “It has been very rewarding to give back to others using the lessons and experiences that I’ve had throughout my research career.”
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