Robin De Vries – Forensics, Raman Spectroscopy, and Adaptability

“I really like puzzles,” says Robin De Vries. Robin, a student at Sam Houston State University and part of the Cleaning Research Group, grew up with shows like Bones and NCIS. She latched onto Forensic Science as a major. She figured: “Great! I can work in a crime lab.” Then, she started to work with Dr. Darren Williams. “I love his classes! He puts a lot of work and enthusiasm into teaching.” While working with DW (as his students call him), she realized she could combine forensics with anthropology.

“I love instrumentation, so I jumped at the chance to work with the Raman lasers. With Raman, you use a laser to observe vibrational changes in a molecule. Each molecule has a vibrational peak, and you can use that peak to detect if the species (the grease or other soil) is present.” Unfortunately, she discovered that the greases she was investigating were all silica-based. All the spectra looked alike. This is no help in identifying a specific contaminant!

This roadblock provided an opportunity to discover adaptability, in this case to change the question being addressed. Robin explains that “DW built a calibrated machine to wipe soil off of a surface in a controlled way, using a constant amount of pressure.” They could use the machine combined with Raman to track cleanliness using changes in fluorescence. She explains that “if the molecule fluoresces, you can measure the height of the peak as an indication of cleanliness.” This illustrates the point that Raman spectrometers can also measure fluorescence, which can be a sensitive way to track cleanliness.

“I’m a hands-on person, so it was really interesting to apply what I learned in class to industry. I think it’s really cool, because sometimes it’s hard to connect what you learn in class to what happens in the real world.”

While Robin likes to focus on one technology, in working in the Cleaning Research Group she discovered the value of using different approaches to tackle the same problem. “It was really cool to see how people worked on different projects but all related to the same goal. It was surprising to see that there were so many different options.”

Completing college in the middle of a global pandemic presents challenges. “It’s all up in the air,” says Robin. She is looking at possibilities such as a Masters program in forensic science and internships in industry, perhaps designing primers. Robin concludes that “sometimes, it’s ok not to have a plan – opportunities will pop up. If I can work with instruments, I’ll be happy.”

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