True Crime Meets New True Chemistry, Dr. Raychelle Burks Shares Her Expertise

Kayla Bertholf

S&E Editor

 

Last Thursday, Lean Lecture Room at Wishart Hall was lit up with the charismatic words of Raychelle Burks, Ph.D. and associate professor at American University, speaking as the Helen Murray Free Lecture Series chemistry speaker. Chemistry students, professors and non-majors were all invited to listen to Dr. Burks discuss her impressive range of work. The technical lecture, Illicit Indications: Colorimetric and Fluorometric Visualizations for Forensic Science, and the non-technical lecture, Monsters, Murder, and Marvel explored and explained her and her team’s research in developing new latent fingerprint detection methods used in forensic science. Latent fingerprinting, more commonly known as dusting for fingerprints, has been one of the main and most well-known crime-solving methods since the 1930s. Dr. Burks works to increase the efficiency of this method using analytical chemistry. 

Many students showed up to listen to her explain how chemical techniques, like colorimetric and fluorometric sensor arrays, along with image analysis, can be used to detect and understand common targets of forensic science such as chemical weapons, fingerprints, illicit drugs and explosives. Between the Marvel references, asking multiple members of the audience to describe the same color of pink to illustrate the difficulties often faced in forensic chemistry assays and describing reaction schemes in a step-by-step method, Dr. Burks communicated science in an accessible and enthusiastic way. 

Personability on stage and in-person is an important part of Dr. Burks’ work.  ot only does she conduct analytical chemistry research and work as a forensic scientist investigating crime scenes, but she is also a scientific communicator presenting at DragonCon and GeekGirlCon. She also has appeared on podcasts, TV, and a science-meets-true crime column for Chemistry World, titled “Trace Analysis.” The column covers everything from how to hide a body to insulin as a murder weapon. In 2020, Dr. Burks recieved  the James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public from the American Chemical Society. Dr. Burks truly knows her audience, whether presenting a technical lecture, general talk or meet and greet with eager students such as myself. 

Dr. Burks’ lectures he Helen Murray Free Lecture Series, endowed through the Al and Helen Free Foundation in memory of Dr. Helen Free who passed away last May at the age of 98, made Dr. Burks’ lectures possible. Until her death, Dr. Free often came back to Wooster to attend this lecture series, even virtually last year. Helen Free graduated with a B.A. in Chemistry from Wooster in 1945 and went on to perform clinical chemistry research that revolutionized diagnostic testing, particularly for the “dip-and-read” glucose tests for diabetics. From 1987 to 1992, she chaired the American Chemical Society’s (A.C.S.) National Chemistry Week Task Force, and in 1993 she served as president of the A.C.S. Each year, the Free Lecture series invites a renowned chemical scientist to present a technical and all-level talk on their contributions to science as well as interact with chemistry students at a technical and personal level. Each year, the Helen Murray Free Lecture explains how a topic in chemistry has contributed to the quality of life for all. 

This year’s lecture accomplished just that, according to Dr. Paul Edminston, an analytic chemistry professor with similar interests to Dr. Burks. “The lectures were excellent in showing the human side to chemistry. The evening lecture was a joy to share in the sci-fi/fantasy that inspires Dr. Burks and her work. Science is done by real people who are driven by visions for new technology, social justice and fear of zombies, you had to be there…  that was awesome.” 

For anyone who missed the lecture but is interested in Dr. Rachelle Burks’ work, the link to her Trace Analysis Column in Chemistry World can be found using the QR code.