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Watch Forensic Scientist Kelly Knight at Work

As a forensic DNA scientist, I tested evidence from crimes that occurred in the state of Maryland. I also got to research new techniques. Because I worked with evidence from crimes, a big part of my job involved going to court. I explained my tests and conclusions to lawyers, judges, and juries. This information helped the jury make its decisions.

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Re-working the Lindbergh baby kidnapping crime scene from the 1930s while 8 1/2 months pregnant! We used metal detectors to search for a metal object reportedly left behind by the baby.

My interest in forensic science can be traced all the way back to high school. My anatomy and physiology teacher gave us a crime scene lab activity, and I loved how many different sciences it brought together. And you could use those sciences to help solve crimes!

I studied chemistry and forensic science in college, and even worked as a DNA technician for the Bode Technology DNA Laboratory while I was there. In graduate school, I became a research scientist and laboratory manager in a forensic biology research laboratory.

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Loading a plate into the genetic analyzer. A genetic analyzer is used to separate and detect DNA fragments. This is the last step before obtaining a DNA profile.

After graduating, I moved on to the Maryland State Police Forensic Sciences Division.

Now I work as a professor with the George Mason University Forensic Science Program and a STEM Accelerator. As a professor, I teach college students about forensic science and I manage the forensic DNA laboratory. As a STEM Accelerator, I mentor students and coordinate STEM outreach events for students in elementary, middle, and high school. I am also the co-founder and director of the Females of Color and those Underrepresented in STEM summer programs for middle and high school girls.

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This is a thermal cycler. A thermal cycler is used to perform PCR or the polymerase chain reaction. This allows us to make millions of copies of our DNA.

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Preparing to do DNA work after cleaning my space. DNA work is highly prone to contamination so it’s important to keep your space clean and to also wear PPE (personal protective equipment).

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Doing research on environmentally degraded DNA samples. To study what happens to DNA after it’s been exposed to the environment for days or weeks or months, we placed bloodstains in a field and collected multiple samples from them over different time periods.

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Performing a DNA extraction to open up the cells and isolate DNA. Think of DNA extraction the way you think of washing clothes. We take a small cutting of the stain we want to extract DNA from and we use a series of reagents to open the cells, wash the sample, and isolate the DNA (think putting dirty laundry into a washing machine with detergent). At the end of the extraction, the DNA is in the ‘dirty water’ (think the water after you have washed your clothes; your clothes are clean and the stain has been washed into the water).

I enjoy staying involved in the forensic science community and its professional organizations. I serve as the biology chair for the Mid Atlantic Association of Forensic Scientists and am also a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. In my spare time, I like to teach and take dance fitness classes, read books, watch Christmas movies, and spend time with my husband and two sons.

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Drilling into a bone from a case that was over 30 years old and still unsolved. By drilling it to bone, we can get bone powder to use for DNA extraction.

Doing forensic serology. Forensic serology is the identification of bodily fluids. The sugars present in our bodily fluids will fluoresce using an alternate light source. This allows us to detect colorless fluids that we cannot see with the naked eye.

Word Of Advice: If you are interested in this career path (or any other path) I recommend shadowing someone in the field, or looking for internships! This can help you figure out if you are really passionate about a particular science – or learn that it’s not everything you thought it would be. That way you have time to give some other things a try, which is okay!

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