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Forensic Genomics


The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research (OVCR), with partial support from the Beckman Institute, launched the Interdisciplinary Innovation Initiative (In3) program to stimulate innovations in interdisciplinary research and education across campus.  The goal is to target and support research and education initiatives to promote interdisciplinarity and innovation leading to major impacts on society.

Ripan Malhi, Associate Professor of Anthropology and IGB faculty member, is leading an interdisciplinary research project entitled Uses and Limitations of Genomic Research in Forensic Science with co-PIs spanning more than 8 academic departments and institutions campus-wide.

Research Goals

Stemming from both academic and applied research interests, the expectation of the project is to contribute a clear understanding of how concepts of racial identity are linked with concepts of ancestry and physical appearance, and the kinds of biases introduced (consciously and/or unconsciously) on investigations for missing persons, victims and assailants. 

A key component of this research is the application of genetic estimates of ancestry and physical features (known as “forensic DNA phenotyping”) in the forensic setting.  The estimates of features, such as hair pigmentation and structure, face shape, skin pigmentation and eye pigmentation, can be used to construct a visual of what the individual looked like, but most of the research on these estimates has been based on samples comprised of mostly European ancestry. 

How accurate are these genetic estimates when the ancestry differs from or is more complex than those the present research is based on?  What are the public and forensic professional’s attitudes of confidence in genetic estimates, and does this confidence align with the statistical confidence that is presented in research? Lastly, how does the relationship between genetic estimates of ancestry interact with concepts of social race—do these two differing ways of describing a person always “agree,” and how does their concordance (or lack of) influence the forensic investigation?

Project Faculty

Ripan Malhi, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, IGB Faculty
Expertise: Degraded DNA, Population genetics, Forensic genetic consultant analysis

Lyle Konigsberg, Professor, Department of Anthropology
Expertise: Quantitative genetics, Forensic science advisor

Cris Hughes, Research Associate, Department of Anthropology
Expertise: Forensic scientist, Forensic investigation case consultant, Degraded DNA analysis

Alfred Roca, Assistant Professor, Department of Animal Sciences
Expertise: Wildlife forensics, Population genetics, Degraded DNA

Patrick Vargas, Associate Professor, College of Media
Expertise: Psychology of implicit attitudes, Stereotyping, Prejudice

Melissa Littlefield, Associate Professor, Department of English
Expertise: Public perception of forensic science and technology, Ethics in science

Carla D. Hunter, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology
Expertise: Psychology of prejudice and discrimination, Racial identity formation among immigrants, Minority and marginalized U.S. populations

University Courses on Forensic Science

ANTH 246 Forensic Science, taught by Professor Ripan Malhi
Forensic science is the application of science to the law and encompasses a wide variety of scientific disciplines.  This course reviews the history and theory underlying methods used in forensic science.  Topics to be discussed include the courtroom, the units of a crime laboratory, methods of securing and investigating a crime scene and the analysis of evidence collected from a crime scene including blood, hair, fingerprints and human skeletal remains.

ANTH 346 Forensic Anthropology, taught by Professor Cris Hughes
Analysis of human skeletal remains of the medico-legal profession. Topics include the development of the field of forensic anthropology, biological profile and skeletal trauma analysis, interval since death estimation. Additional topics include investigation of crime scenes, the legal role of the biological anthropologist as an expert witness and case report preparation. Attention will also be drawn to the incorporation of anthropological and ethical approaches to dealing with death and using human remains for research.

CHEM 108 Forensic Chemistry
Laboratory-based work in which students will evaluate products (such as antacids), synthesize materials (such as soap), and gain a better understanding of forensic chemistry.

SOC 275 Criminology, taught by Professor Anna Marshall
Nature and extent of crime; past and present theories of crime causation; criminal behavior in the United States and abroad, and its relation to personal, structural and cultural conditions; the nature of the criminal justice system and the influences of the exercise of discretion among actors in the criminal justice system.


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