Better technology helps forensic scientists


December 3rd, 2010

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Lincoln, NE – For the past few years, police investigators and county attorneys were getting frustrated with how long it took to get test results back for DNA samples for cases ranging from sexual assaults to homicides. The Nebraska State Patrol Crime Lab on the south side of Lincoln could not handle the demand. Delays in those tests might stall the start of a trial, or worse, stall the identification of a criminal.

“There have been times we’ve had at least a nine month turn-around time, said Pamela Zilly, the laboratory’s director. “And obviously that’s very long.”  “We’ve not cut that down, we’re at three months, maybe a little less. It’s been a huge improvement.”

That has been possible with the addition of more forensic scientists and other important members of the team.

Melissa Kreikemeir, a forensic scientist in the crime lab’s biology section, watched as a robotic arm swept across a tray loaded with tiny test tubes. “We call it TKan, liquid handling robot. This actually does it all for us,” she said.

“So we can do 80 samples at a time on this.” To do 80 samples manually, she said, would take about four hours. “This takes… about 45 minutes,” she said, “but its completely hands off. It’s a lot more efficient.”

While the robot dilutes the samples, does the necessary math calculations and begins the process of making copies of the collected DNA, the staff at the crime lab can handle other parts of their job. The only other DNA processing in the state is handled in Omaha at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. There’s some hope that with training and efficient technology, test results could arrive even faster than that three month wait.

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