Therese Mandracchia ’19 spent the summer at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where forensic experts work to identify fallen service members so recovered remains may be returned to grieving families. Part of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner’s System (AFMES), the lab supports forensic analysis, as well as consultation, research and education services, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense and other agencies.
The DNA analysis, Mandracchia says, is crucial to “providing another opinion on who a fallen service member is, in addition to fingerprints and dental records, to increase the probability that this fallen service member is who the lab says they are.”
To that end, the lab utilizes “advanced machines and perfected techniques to reach a conclusion on identifying someone who has passed, as well as an up-and-coming new technique, NextGen sequencing,” says Mandracchia. “NextGen requires very little DNA to produce a nearly complete DNA sequence, which is a new technique that is still being improved, but it is a great way to gain sequences from very degraded human remains.”
With mentorship from Dr. Lowell J. Levine ’59, a forensic odontologist and director of the New York State Police Medicolegal Investigations Unit, Mandracchia interned last summer at the New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center, where she encountered the in-depth forensic processes she would put into practice in the Dover lab.
This summer, she worked primarily in the lab’s research division, troubleshooting issues with DNA amplification, a technique used to replicate DNA for easier analysis. In addition to that project, she says, “I was able to practice sanding an animal bone, which is a training exercise for DNA analysts before they work on recovered human remains.”
A biochemistry major and law and society minor, and a record-breaking diver on the Herons swimming and diving team, Mandracchia is spending her fall semester studying abroad in Denmark.
Looking forward, she hopes “to apply for a position at AFMES during my senior year” and enroll in “graduate school soon thereafter to get a degree in molecular biology or forensic science.” In the meantime, she plans to continue to build on her laboratory experience on campus with biology research through the HWS Undergraduate Summer Research Program.