Forensic Genetic Genealogy Students Develop Hands-On Skills While Helping Solve Cold Case
The inaugural cohort of the University’s forensic genetic genealogy certificate program helped give a name to a woman who had been unidentified since 2017.
November 12, 2021
By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications
Karen McDermott recently completed an internship that enabled her to apply her forensic genetic genealogy skills to help investigators solve a case and offer closure to the family of a missing woman.
Working with the DNA Doe Project, a nonprofit organization that assists law enforcement with investigating unsolved cases, McDermott and five of her classmates were completing their final practicum requirement for their graduate certificate in forensic genetic genealogy at the University of New Haven. They helped identify a woman who had been found deceased behind a home in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2017. Forensic DNA profiling had not been able to identify her.
The students started with an artist’s rendering of the woman, as well as some basic information, including her approximate age and information about her tattoos. Using genetic genealogy tools, they identified individuals who could be related to her, and they applied genealogy research and used social media to identify potential common ancestors. They were able to give a name to the woman who had been without one for years: Laura Jean Jordan.
“Working with the DNA Doe Project was an amazing experience, and we were able to see the real-world application of the tools and knowledge we gained through the program,” said McDermott. “When we finally received the confirmation of the identity of the woman and her family members were notified, it was a combination of sadness for the family, but also relief, joy, and pride as we celebrated our success as a team.”
‘Hands-on experience in using forensic genetic genealogy in real cases’
McDermott, who has been a forensic scientist for the Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory’s Criminalistics Unit for 15 years, looks forward to applying her experience in the program to her cases. She and her fellow interns were all offered the opportunity to continue as volunteers with the DNA Doe project, and she says they “all happily accepted.” They are now working on a second case.
Nancy Landini, who has also collaborated with the Utah Cold Case Coalition, says this was her first time working on a case like this one. She plans to continue volunteering with the DNA Doe Project, and she aspires to become a forensic genetic genealogist.
“I’ve worked many unknown parentage cases, but I found working on a case where the individual no longer has a voice or the ability to advocate for herself to be especially meaningful and impactful,” she said. “The DNA Doe Project has some great processes and tools in place to facilitate collaboration. Working with their volunteers and my teammates from the University was a great experience.”
McDermott and Landini were members of the inaugural cohort of the University’s graduate certificate program in forensic genetic genealogy. Developed by Claire Glynn, Ph.D., an associate professor of forensic science, the program prepares students to work in one of the fastest growing areas of forensic science. Offered fully online, the program offers students flexibility while gaining hands-on experience. In addition to the DNA Doe Project, students also interned for Bode Technology.
“Collaboration with our industry partners has been instrumental in both the development of this program and its continued success,” said Dr. Glynn. “This provided the students with hands-on experience using forensic genetic genealogy in real cases, and ultimately, it allowed them to make a meaningful impact in the resolution of those cases.”
‘This was a life-changing learning experience for me’
Dr. Glynn calls the inaugural cohort a “phenomenal group of students.” Approximately half of them were already working for law enforcement agencies of some sort, including as forensic scientists, cold case investigators, or death investigators, throughout the U.S. and around the world. The other half of the students had diverse backgrounds. Some had significant experience with genealogy, and others were new to the field.
“What connected the class was everyone's passion and drive to learn about this new investigatory tool and their desire to apply that knowledge to criminal investigations and unidentified human-remains cases,” said Dr. Glynn. “We all have a passion for serving the public and bringing justice to victims. When you combine that passion with dedicated students and investigators, industry experts, and challenging cases, we can achieve very powerful and rewarding outcomes for everyone.”
Lisa Needler, who also was among the students who worked with the DNA Doe Project, is passionate about helping families such as that of the woman they helped identify. She says forensic genetic genealogy can be an effective way to solve a variety of the existing unsolved cases, and it is an important method to turn to when others have failed to offer solutions.
“This was a life-changing learning experience for me,” she said. “I learned the value of working as part of a team, and how even the most minor-seeming details can be extremely important later on. The families of lost people deserve to know what happened to their loved ones. Emotionally, it was overwhelming, and yet satisfying, that our Jane Doe was identified.”
‘I am immensely proud of every one of our alumni'
Forensic genetic genealogy has already helped investigators solve a variety of crimes, including identifying the infamous Golden State Killer. It has also been used in a variety of investigations, including identifying unidentified human remains (i.e. Jane and John Does); freeing the innocent in wrongful convictions, identifying fallen soldiers from World War II and in historical investigations, and solving decades-old cold cases of homicide and sexual assault.
Designed to be accessible to professionals who already work full time, the University’s graduate certificate program comprises four courses that are taken sequentially. Presented fully online, the program offers a supportive and collaborative virtual community for students. In addition to the “educational and rewarding” experience she had in her practicum, the network she developed is what Wendy McLean liked the most about the program.
“I really enjoyed meeting others who are interested in the field of forensic genetic genealogy,” she said. “Although the program is online, it had several elements that enabled us to interact with each other. This cohort included professionals in all the fields that came together, and their insight as we learned together was extremely valuable.”
Dr. Glynn is excited to welcome the next cohort in January 2022, a group that will include students from a wide variety of backgrounds, as well as from nearly two dozen states, as well as from Europe and Australia.
“The diverse makeup of the students allows us to learn from each other's experiences and perspectives,” she said. “The graduates from our inaugural cohort are already making a huge impact resolving cases, giving victims voices, and pursuing justice. I couldn't have dreamt of a better outcome from the first cohort, and I am immensely proud of every one of our alumni.”