The Charger Blog

Forensic Genetic Genealogist Among Connecticut Magazine’s Influential Up-And-Comers

Claire Glynn, Ph.D., an educator, researcher, scientist, and cold case investigator in the innovative field of forensic genetic genealogy, has been included in Connecticut Magazine’s Class of 2022 “40 Under 40” list of notable leaders who are making an important impact in their fields and across the state of Connecticut.

February 24, 2022

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Claire Glynn, Ph.D. headshot.
Claire Glynn, Ph.D., is a leader in the field of forensic genetic genealogy.

Genetic genealogy was originally a hobby for Claire Glynn, Ph.D. She is now a leader in what has become one of the fast-growing fields of forensic science.

When she was visiting her family in Ireland over the holidays, Dr. Glynn got an email that she’d been chosen as a member of Connecticut Magazine’s “40 Under 40” Class of 2022. It was in recognition of her prolific work as a researcher, her contributions to the field of forensic science, and the impact she’s already made on the lives of her students at the University.

“I was just incredibly honored, and, frankly, humbled to receive such an honor,” said Dr. Glynn, who who previously worked in the United Kingdom as a forensic scientist and moved to Connecticut in 2014 to join the forensic science department at the University of New Haven. “It’s nice to be recognized and nice to have all the hard work I’ve been doing in this field out there so more people will know about it.”

‘My two worlds were colliding’

Connecticut Magazine’s annual “40 Under 40” list includes 40 professionals under age 40 who are making an impact across the state of Connecticut and beyond. Nominated by friends, family, colleagues, and magazine staff, the members of the Class of 2022 include activists, a filmmaker, and a Jeopardy! Champion.

The University has been well represented on this list over the last few years, as Alvin Tran, Sc.D., MPH, a public health professor, advocate, and assistant provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion, was on the 2020 list; former School of Health Sciences Dean Summer McGee was recognized in 2019; and Ibrahim “Abe” Baggili, the founding director of the University’s Connecticut Institute of Technology, earned a spot on the 2018 list.

Dr. Glynn, who is self-taught, first used genetic genealogy to solve cases of unknown parentage, such as identifying the biological parents of individuals who were adopted. It is now increasingly used in investigating cold cases, homicides, sexual assaults, and for identifying unidentified human remains – commonly known to the public as “John and Jane Does.” Dr. Glynn says forensic genetic genealogy has already experienced “huge success” in the United States since its implementation.

“When it was announced in 2018 that this new field of forensic genetic genealogy was being applied to criminal investigations, for me, it was quite exciting because it was like my two worlds were colliding,” she said. “It brought together my hobby of genetic genealogy and then my expertise, experience, and career in forensic science, and, in particular, forensic DNA analysis.”

Claire Glynn, Ph.D. (right), and her students before the pandemic.
Claire Glynn, Ph.D. (right), and her students before the pandemic.
‘Give a voice back to victims’

When investigators receive an unknown sample of DNA, they perform DNA analysis to generate a profile. They then upload the profile to genetic genealogy databases where they search for genetic relatives to the unknown person. They can then determine how much DNA the individuals share.

Using their findings, as well as publicly available information such as census, birth, marriage, and death records, they can build a family tree backward in time and piece together both sides of an individual’s family. They then go forward in time to identify the unknown person.

Recognizing that she had critical skills in genetic genealogy and in forensic DNA analysis – and that there was a critical need for more education in the emerging field of forensic genetic genealogy – Dr. Glynn saw an opportunity to help educate the next generation of investigators. She developed the University’s graduate certificate in forensic genetic genealogy, identifying the core competencies and skills that her students would need as investigators.

"It’s a very exciting time to be a forensic scientist and to be a forensic DNA specialist, in particular."Claire Glynn, Ph.D.

Dr. Glynn created the student-centered and student-focused program to offer transformative experiences for students so they can make an important impact in the world. She’s already done that with the first cohort of students in 2021, when some of the students worked with the DNA Doe project, a nonprofit organization that assists law enforcement professionals with investigating unsolved cases. They helped identify a woman who had been found deceased in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2017. Many of the graduates from the first cohort are already making an impressive impact in solving cold case investigations across the United States.

“Informing the wider community and the wider public of the impact that forensic genetic genealogy can have in criminal investigations is really important,” said Dr. Glynn. “This will ultimately help strengthen what we can do, get more people involved, and train more people in this novel investigatory tool so that more people can start using it to give victims justice and to give a voice back to victims.”

‘Use science to serve justice’

Dr. Glynn is also working to identify human remains that are much older – including bones of those believed to be pirates. The Whydah, a ship carrying human cargo that was seized by the commander of a fleet of pirate ships, sank off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717. It was discovered by explorers in 1984, and the team has been recovering treasure and artifacts ever since – including, recently, human bones.

Dr. Glynn and her fellow researchers are hoping to use forensic genetic genealogy to identify living descendants linked to those bones. They performed DNA analysis on the first bone found and compared it to the DNA profile of a living descendant of Samuel Bellamy, the pirate ship captain. It was not a match, but Dr. Glynn and her colleagues are hoping to identify who it belonged to, and to use forensic genetic genealogy to help identify other skeletons that were recently found.

“Being a forensic scientist and having this knowledge of the field and of DNA, I have always felt a responsibility to use that knowledge to make the world a little bit safer, better, and to use science to serve justice,” said Dr. Glynn. “To see the impact this can have in the resolution of cases, including decades-old cold cases, is truly something phenomenal. I’m so honored to be a part of it.”

‘It’s a very exciting time to be a forensic scientist’

Sharing her knowledge and expertise, as well as educating the public about the potential and importance of forensic genetic genealogy, is important to Dr. Glynn. She recently published an article in a digital magazine in which she discussed the certificate program at the University. She is excited to be training the 2022 cohort, which began the graduate certificate program last month.

The program’s enrollment has already tripled in size, and Dr. Glynn says it includes some “amazing investigators.” She says many of them work in the forensic science and law enforcement communities and are already helping to solve crimes. They are excited to be using their experience in the program to enhance their forensic genetic genealogy skill sets so they can apply what they’ve learned.

When discussing the history of forensic DNA analysis and how it has developed over the past three decades or so, Dr. Glynn has told her students she wished she’d been born a few decades earlier so that she could’ve been working in the field of forensic science when Sir Alec Jeffreys made his groundbreaking discovery of the technique of genetic fingerprinting in 1984.

“Just imagine how exciting that must’ve been for everyone in the industry,” she said. “It truly did revolutionize the forensic science industry and what we could do in criminal investigations.

“Now I’m part of the industry, and this brand-new investigatory tool has been developed,” she continued. “I can be there at the start of it when it’s being implemented, and standards are being established, and I can use it in cases myself. It’s a very exciting time to be a forensic scientist and to be a forensic DNA specialist, in particular. These innovative, new tools can have such a phenomenal impact, not just in the U.S. but on a global scale as well.”