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Looking for answers with Elena Zavala

Elena Zavala is a graduate student studying forensic science at Penn State.
Elena Zavala is a graduate student studying forensic science at Penn State. Photo provided

Elena Zavala is having an identity crisis. A graduate student studying forensic science at Penn State, Zavala is working on a project that evaluates methods of recovering DNA from human skeletal material for sequencing. It’s a lot of scientific jargon aimed at the very simple purpose of reuniting names/faces with missing persons and human remains.

“I hope that the application of these techniques can help with accountability in terms of bringing criminals to justice and bring closure to families who are still searching for their loved ones,” Zavala said.

Q: You went to Croatia and collected more than 70 sets of samples from human remains. Is the 70th examination any easier than the first?

A: I wish! Contamination and consistency are key concerns throughout this process. As you process more and more bones it can become easy to slip into a routine, but it is important to stay vigilant so as not to compromise the small amount of sample you have available. With this kind of work you may only have one try to get the results you need, so each time is equally important and requires the same amount of care and energy.

Q: When you examine someone’s remains, what are you hoping to find?

A: There are several different contexts in which we (members of Dr. Holland’s research lab at Penn State) are examining the remains we are currently looking at. For some of them we are evaluating the potential for resulting information to be used to confirm identity, for others we are looking for potential maternal linkages and for others we are looking to compare results to references in order to confirm the identity of remains. In order to accomplish these goals we examine both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA.

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