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Welcome to Innovation in the Burg, a podcast about science and innovation in St. Petersburg. If you’re a self-described science or technology geek, or even if you aren’t, this will be a fun and informative conversation. Each week, we’ll be joined by a local science or technology expert who will talk about what they’re working on. But to make sure we keep this in perspective and we don’t become too technical, we have a community member joining us. Our hope is that you learn something new and enjoy our conversation.

04/15/2019 | Episode 006 | 27:18

Innovation in the Burg: Forensic Science or Fauxrensic Science?

Forensic Science or Fauxrensic Science? Alison and guests talk about another hidden science gem in Tampa Bay, DNA analysis, and myth busting CSI

On this episode of Innovation in the 'Burg, Alison is joined by expert Rob O'Brien, forensic biology section lead at the National Forensic Science Technology Center. O'Brien talks DNA and busting CSI myths with Alison and community member Cesar Morales, senior program manager of CyberOps Laboratory at SRI International. They talk innovation in the forensic science space - and the improvements still to come on the collection side; why DNA testing takes so long; and what NFSTC does both in Tampa Bay and nationally.

Key Insights

  • This week's expert is Rob O’Brien, Forensic Biology Section Lead at the National Forensic Science Technology Center. He's joined by Chris Vivian, Director of Communications NFSTC.
  • Today's community member is Cesar Morales. He is a senior program manager of CyberOps Laboratory at SRI International, a Naval Academy grad, and a true St. Petersburger.
  • National Forensic Science Technology Center has been located in Largo since 1995. It is a stand alone nonprofit organization doing training and technology evaluation and professional education for forensic scientists, lab technicians, law enforcement, and more.
  • NFSTC clients include crime scene investigators, law enforcement, crime laboratories, DNA analysts, and chemists. They truly run the gamut from front end to back end on forensic science.
  • O'Brien does all of the forensic DNA training, technology evaluations for new technologies, including new instrumentation or improvements on existing devices.
  • SRI International is a nonprofit research and development firm based in Silicon Valley. It is one of the oldest institutions in Silicon Valley. SRI has either invented or enhanced many of the items you touch every day, including computer mouses and Siri.
  • St. Pete mostly focuses on maritime technology and data. They get the "right information to the right people at the right time," using tools like machine learning & AI
  • O'Brien says one of the most important areas of innovation is no longer in the back-end DNA analysis, but in the collection. Many companies are in the process of creating a better swab for DNA collection that is more sensitive and releases all of the cells collected.
  • Why does DNA testing take so long? O'Brien says it's a complicated process. First you must get the cells, break them open and get the DNA out, then clean out all of the other material besides the DNA. Then target the areas to look at, copy them, separate them by size and visualize them.
  • The quickest DNA testing right now takes 2 hours. Though most lab settings take a lot longer.
  • The DNA analysis in the field is much less advanced that it appears in TV shows. Most of the testing they can do is called presumptive testing, which means they can tell you what a substance is, i.e. blood. But they cannot tell you who it is from.
  • Conclusions based on DNA are not quite what you see on TV. The NFSTC staff and the people they train must testify in court, so they know which things will hold up. They don't operate quite like TV shows, and definitely don't confront a suspect after testing the DNA.
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About the host

Alison Barlow is the Executive Director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District. Her role is to harness expertise in health science, marine science, education, and art to form unique collaborations. These multi-sector, cross discipline collaborations strive to identify innovative solutions that will grow the economic and social vibrancy of St. Petersburg and address key global issues. Alison grew up in St. Petersburg, graduated from Boca Ciega High School, received a Bachelors in Hospitality Administration from Florida State University, and later a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Management of Global Information Systems from American University in Washington D.C. For 17 years, Alison worked as a business and technology consultant based in Washington DC, often for the Department of Defense. She focused on strategic planning, process improvement and technology collaboration. Following her relocation back to St. Petersburg, Alison became the manager and a lead facilitator for Collaborative Labs at St. Petersburg College. Alison joined the St. Petersburg Innovation District as its inaugural Executive Director in June of 2017. In addition to her work, Alison is involved with the Leadership St. Petersburg Alumni Association, Friends of Strays Animal Shelter Board, and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.


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