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Forensic Science Profile

Forensic scientist finds truth in fingerprints

For more than 30 years, Imogene Van Buren has searched for truth in the friction ridges of fingerprints. She has identified victims of violent crimes, accidents and natural disasters and given their families closure. She also identifies criminals, in spite of their efforts to avoid detection.

Van Buren began her career with the FBI examining the friction ridges on the fingers, palms and feet. With advanced training, Van Buren now specializes in latent print examination, a forensic discipline that focuses on developing, preserving and identifying latent fingerprints. Latent prints are not typically visible to the naked eye, and her team handles complex examinations involving the undeveloped, concealed and fragmentary prints of a suspect or a victim. They may also be called upon to analyze surfaces when development, recovery and identification of a print are especially challenging.

While working with the FBI, Van Buren was a member of the Disaster Squad, helping to identify victims after mass-fatality incidents like airplane crashes, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina. In 1996, Van Buren was tasked with an FBI project to develop an automated system to transition latent print operations to a paperless process. She led the team that designed and prototyped a workstation interface for latent print processing that became part of the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification Systems that launched in 1999. IAFIS is a national fingerprint and criminal history data system that now houses more than 100 million prints.

“IAFIS is a project I am very proud of, and I get to see everyday what a difference we made when we developed the user workstation interface,” said Van Buren.

Today, as a group manager for a latent print group at ORAU, Van Buren and her team are applying their expertise to help federal agencies identify individuals who pose a threat to the United States by searching for fingerprint evidence on a variety of materials. Her team works closely with other forensic specialists that examine toolmarks, trace evidence and DNA, to give responders, law enforcement and others the information they need.

“Violent attacks occur all over the world, and we’re part of a network of people working globally to eradicate these threats,” said Van Buren. “The work I do today allows me to make a difference for our citizens serving overseas and for homeland security. I love what I do.”

Imogene Van Buren

Imogene Van Buren, ORAU group manager, latent fingerprints.