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Ezinne Nwankwo

Summer intern helps DHS improve DNA fingerprinting technology

Ezinne Nwankwo

Ezinne Nwankwo, a senior at Emory University and a summer intern for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security at Sandia National Laboratories, is investigating ways to improve more rapid technology for DNA "fingerprinting."

Contrary to what is depicted on television criminal forensics programs, analysis of DNA material using current laboratory methods takes weeks, not hours. However, if Ezinne Nwankwo and her research team are successful, crime scene investigators may soon be able to access DNA "fingerprints" as easily as they do real ones.

As a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Scholarship Program, administered by Oak Ridge Institute for Science Education which is managed by Oak Ridge Associated Universities, Nwankwo spent her summer at the Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, Calif., developing technology that will expedite the ability to identify terrorists or other criminals through minute DNA samples. The project team's goal is to integrate this capability into an emerging technology, called lab-on-a-chip, which will give investigators full laboratory functionality, including automated analysis, in a portable design they can take into the field.

This research program is funded by the Rapid Reaction Technology Office part of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratories. Ezinne's summer internship was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), as part of her DHS Scholarship award.

"Ultimately, the goal is to develop a more efficient way to secure identification from a person's genetic 'fingerprint'," said Nwankwo, a senior at Emory University majoring in biology. "Because of the backlog at many traditional labs, DNA identification can take several months. With this technology, a field agent can secure a DNA profile that can be used to match or identify a person within an hour and without the need for highly trained technicians."

This level of technology can give agents or military personnel in the field a more efficient tool to gain intelligence on potential terrorists, according to Nwankwo.

As a member of a multidisciplinary team of biologists, engineers and chemists, Nwankwo learned and helped improved upon techniques for extracting and analyzing DNA samples that will provide the best results for this technology. The final device will need to provide very precise results with extremely small samples of fluid volumes that measure a micro liter (less than a drop of water).

"I found this experience far more hands-on than I was expecting," she said. "Right from the beginning, I was placed among seasoned researchers in the lab helping to develop critical parts of the laboratory's project."

Nwankwo's focus on research was initially sparked in high school when she wrote a paper on the AIDS epidemic among young African-American women and tackled a high school immunology class that focused on the chemical and biological aspects of the virus. From there, her interest in science grew and she decided to expand her experience by exploring how her theoretical knowledge could apply to real life situations. The anthrax concern and the awareness of potential attacks on populations with biological agents inspired her to broaden her studies beyond the AIDS virus.

Away from the classroom, Nwankwo leads an active life at Emory University. She is president and former captain of Emory Cheerleading and a member of the African Students Association. She also mentors college freshmen through the Hughes Undergraduate Excelling in Science program and high school students through the Research Internship and Science Education program, both offered through the college.

As for others who might be interested in pursuing a DHS Scholar experience, Nwankwo encourages everyone to apply.

"Even if you don't have any research experience, you should at least try to take advantage of this opportunity," said Nwankwo. "I came in with very little laboratory experience and have learned so much during my internship summer. People like Dr. Hanyoup Kim and Dr. Michael Bartsch guided me through the process and made the experience that much better. I definitely plan to do more research in the future."