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Put to the Test

Internships give biology students unique opportunities

Many, if not all, Ohio Northern University students participate in an internship at some point in their college careers. There is little that compares to the real-world experience that internships provide. Internships are where the rhetoric meets the road and students truly learn if the path they are on is the right one for them.

The best internships benefit the intern and the organization equally. This is harder than it sounds as many interns are simply not trusted to step in and do “real” work. Factor in the field the internship is in, and the chances of finding that balance can become even more remote.

1. Masin tested Promega’s Plexor HY Quantitation Kit, which is used to determine the mass of DNA found in minute samples. This new system boasts the ability to quantify the DNA of less than a full cell, or three picograms, an improvement over the lab’s current system, which requires at least 23 picograms, or roughly three full cells worth, of a sample. Should Masin validate the claims of the manufacturer, the kit might prove to be a valuable tool for law enforcement in cases where only trace evidence, such as a fingerprint, could assist in providing conclusive DNA identification.

“I did a variety of studies with the kit. I looked at how reproducible the results were, how sensitive it really was, how to calibrate it and how to interpret the results. I was the first one in this lab who was doing this, so I actually wrote some of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the DNA analysts to use in their casework,” he says.

2. Lang and Kulp conducted validation studies of the Promega’s Powerplex 16 Hot Start amplification kit, a new, faster method for profiling DNA from a single, or known, source. The protocol for direct amplification has advantages in that it saves time and money over traditional amplification methods.

“You are trying to establish an identity or DNA profile, but you skip the quantification step—seeing how much DNA you have—because you already know the source. And, since it is a single source and doesn’t have all the contaminants that a crime scene sample would have, you don’t go through the purification step,” says Kulp. “For Baltimore’s lab, that could mean saving three hours for every eight samples.”

Even though Kulp and Lang tested the same kit, they did so with different sample collection techniques. Kulp’s work dealt with DNA derived from blood cells, while Lang used the kit to test its effectiveness with epithelial cells collected via a swab of the inside of the cheek, the two common methods for obtaining DNA from known subjects.

3. The forensics program at ONU is unique in that it utilizes faculty members with expertise in specific areas of the sciences to balance the education of the forensic science majors. De Luca credits much of the programs success to the quality of the students the program has attracted nationwide. The strong curriculum can also prepare the students for graduate school, professional schools like medical or dental, or even law school.

So what are the odds that three ONU forensic biology students would be entrusted by two working crime labs with not only the daunting task of validating new DNA analysis technologies, but also representing the labs at a professional conference?

As it turns out, pretty good.

Justin Masin, a senior forensic biology major from Raleigh, N.C., traveled to Salt Lake City last summer for a 10-week internship with the Utah Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Forensic Services. He wasn’t sure what he’d be working on as an intern, but he hoped it would involve DNA, his area of interest.1

“As long as I could have glanced into the DNA lab, I would have been happy,” he says.

2,000 miles away in Baltimore, Md., then-seniors Andrea Lang, BS ’11, and Malorie Kulp, BS ’11, were settling into life as interns with the Baltimore City Police Department Crime Laboratory. The latest ONU students to intern there, they quickly adjusted to the fast pace of the lab and set to work on how to make it even faster with new DNA analysis technology.2

“Baltimore was amazing. They have a huge lab, and they are implementing some newer technologies that many labs are just now considering,” says Kulp.

For these forensic DNA enthusiasts, the internships would prove to be unforgettable experiences. These was truly internships where student and organization benefitted equally. The three conducted validation studies of new DNA analysis technologies that their respective labs were considering adopting. This type of work is typically reserved for graduate-level students, so it was rare for undergraduates to perform, as was their selection to present their findings at the Southern Association for Forensic Scientists’ annual meeting in Charlotte, N.C., in September.

“This opportunity that we had is because of ONU and, especially, Dr. De Luca because he has helped prepare us for these internships and to be confident in what we know,” says Kulp. “Most people just don’t get this opportunity.”

Dr. Dennis De Luca, associate professor biological sciences, knows how to prepare his students to be successful working in a crime lab. A former forensic DNA analyst for the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office, he understands how important the internship experience can be. That is why ONU’s forensic biology program requires its students to complete an internship.3

“We are fortunate here at ONU in that we have the proper forensic equipment and scientific background to truly teach the forensic science necessary to prepare the students for careers in forensic laboratories,” he says. “It is my duty to assist the students in every way possible to locate and secure good internship experiences. I do this through my professional contacts and colleagues with whom I am constantly surveying for possible opportunities.”
For Lang, spending a summer in a big city far from her home added to some initial anxiety that quickly faded after her work began.
“At first, it was kind of scary. It’s a real crime lab. They are really doing something important here. And I wondered, ‘How do I measure up?’” she says. “I really do attribute my ONU education to doing well at my internship, because the things I’d learned in class made sense.”

There were many take-a-ways from this experience for Lang, Kulp and Masin. They gained valuable real-world experience in the ever-evolving world of DNA analysis. They earned the respect of professional DNA analysts, to the point they represented them at a professional conference, and presented work they did themselves. Perhaps most importantly, they each had their desire to pursue a career in DNA analysis affirmed. Kulp and Lang even ended up with jobs after graduating in December, something they directly attribute to their internship experience.

“At my interview, they asked me my opinion on whether their lab should use the process I ran my study on,” says Kulp.

But for Masin, it’s what he left behind that he will remember most. Should Utah follow through and adopt Promega’s Plexor HY quantification methods he tested, the one-time aspiring police officer will take pride in knowing that he’ll have played a role in successful prosecutions to keep criminals off the streets by providing a valid scientific study using a new methodology.

“A small role, but yeah,” he says. “It makes me a little nervous, actually. Knowing that my work is under that much scrutiny and that it can potentially help put someone away. It’s just a little bit of pressure.”