How can a tiny amount of DNA be used to identify one person out of a billion?


This was the question posed to the participants of the 2017 Outreach Summer School, in the form of a gripping real-life crime scene investigation, organised and run by Dr Argita Zalli and Dr Luisa Garcia-Haro, Teaching Fellows on the BSc Medical Biosciences (BMB) programme.

The crime…

A classic case of ‘whodunnit’, the exciting scenario started with Dr Garcia-Haro explaining to students the importance of statistics which quickly took a dark turn when the session was interrupted by police officers who notified everyone that a famous model had been murdered! The scene was further set by Dr Zalli, who read out a newspaper article about the murder, while a video was used to summarise the key details of the gruesome crime. Participants were split into 5 groups and introduced to the handcuffed suspects, whom they interrogated using a real interrogation sheet, and went on to gather evidence from the crime scene.  Each group was also allocated a suspect they had to defend in a mock court trial – the finale of their investigation.

The investigation…

The focus of the case was not only on solving the crime but on participants using their scientific skills to produce evidence obtained by careful observation and analysis of their data. In order to investigate whether the DNA of the suspect matched the DNA found at the crime scene, and prepare for court, Dr Zalli and Dr Garcia-Haro guided students through collecting strong laboratory-based scientific evidence which students used to conduct molecular biology techniques such as PCR and gel electrophoresis, and learn more about genotyping and genotype matching. This was a taster of parts of the content which will be covered in the Lab Pods modules that students can expect to study on the BMB programme.

The result…

The Summer School programme, which ran for two different weeks, was a huge success amongst all participants who thoroughly enjoyed not only acting as scientists but also as investigators and lawyers! The group work and obtaining scientific evidence through laboratory research enhanced students team working abilities as well as furthered their understanding of lab skills and why different molecular techniques are important and the principles behind them. Whilst the mock court trial at the end allowed students to showcase their findings, debate with their peers and enhance their presentation skills.

To find out about future outreach initiatives, please visit the Student Recruitment and Outreach website. 

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