Forget CSI. Adrienne Borges, MS ’06, is a real-life forensic detective. She’s helped identify missing soldiers, catch serial killers and bring peace of mind to families searching for lost loved ones.
By John DiConsiglio
Each morning when Adrienne Borges, MS ’06, arrives for work at the Bode Technology Group's Cellmark Forensics Lab in Lorton, Va., she dons her white coat and safety goggles and examines her workload for the day: A drop of blood discovered at a Washington, D.C., crime scene; a brittle bone chip from a skeleton found in the Arizona desert; a hair fiber recovered from the rubble of an earthquake in Peru.
Every tiny thread that lands on her lab table—from tissue traces to jagged fingernails—is a clue in a larger puzzle. By extracting and examining DNA from her samples, Borges, a veteran data analyst in Bodes’ Human Identification Group, solves mysteries for international governments, local police and families searching for lost loved ones. Her skills have helped identify missing World War II soldiers, catch a serial killer in Canada and bring closure to cold cases.
“What I love about this job is that I’m actually helping people,” she said. “I’m giving a voice to families who may have spent years looking for answers. I can bring them some peace of mind.”
As a forensic sciences student in Columbian College, Borges was initially drawn to the field’s technical aspects—the graduate program’s molecular biology track fit nicely with her undergraduate degree in biology. But, through her studies, she quickly realized the field’s strong connection to real-world scenarios.
“Every student is aware of the responsibility they have as a forensic scientist; their job will immediately impact society,” said Daniele Podini, assistant professor of forensic molecular biology and biological sciences. “They may help a victim find relief because a criminal was apprehended or an innocent suspect was freed based on DNA findings. Our students understand that what they are doing in the lab changes people’s lives. Not in the future, but right now!”
After graduation, Borges worked for the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, identifying the remains of lost soldiers. She brought her skills and experience to Bode where she handles as many as 500 cases a year. Although friends inevitably compare her to TV’s CSI heroes (“They have much better lighting than we do and wear better clothes,” she joked), Borges actually works with remarkably low-tech methods, along with cutting-edge technology. When examining a piece of bone, for example, Borges conducts what she calls a “laborious manual extraction process” that often involves slicing the sample and physically pulverizing it with steel blender cups. “You don’t see that on CSI,” she said.
The condition of the remains can make her job even trickier. Bones found in deserts may have decayed in the heat and sunlight. Old samples may be chalky and crumble. “You have to be very careful and follow strict protocols,” she said. When dealing with criminal cases that hinge on DNA evidence, “even the tiniest human error can cause big problems.” Take too small a sample and the results will suffer. Take too much and there may not be enough left for future examinations.
Steel cups aside, Borges’ lab also includes a high-tech sample-extracting robot and a state-of-the-art capillary electrophoresis machine that aids in yielding DNA profiles. Keeping abreast of the field’s fast-moving technology is critical for forensic analysts, a fact that Podini stresses in class. “The technology changes so rapidly that students must always be learners,” he said. “I can teach them the technology they will use on their first case. But I have no idea what technology they will use on their last case before they retire. It probably hasn’t been invented yet.”
Indeed, Borges said field-savvy professors like Podini, who has a history in both law enforcement and professional forensic analysis, prepared her to instantly step into her career. “The GW teachers weren’t just academics; they were speaking from life experience,” Borges said. “They talked about the stresses they faced, the mistakes they made and what really goes on in the forensic world each day.”
For Borges, each day brings both wins and losses, and a staggering variety of cases. Her lab has helped identify people lost in conflicts and natural disasters around the world—from mass graves uncovered in Guatemala to victims of Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes and airline crashes. Recently, she worked with U.S. and Mexican authorities to examine skeletal remains found in Arizona deserts. Each year, hundreds of Mexican migrants perish in the southwestern deserts as they attempt to cross the border into the U.S. Comparing DNA from the scorched bones to samples from family members, Borges can often help resolve a missing migrant’s fate. “We can’t bring back their loved ones, but maybe we can give them some closure,” she said.
Not every case has a satisfying ending. Borges is haunted by the unsolved story of a teenage girl who disappeared in 1958. Arizona police brought her a hair recovered from a shallow grave. While circumstantial evidence indicated it belonged to the missing girl, Borges was never able to establish a definitive link. “That one sticks with me,” she said. “The family had waited so long for an answer. I couldn’t give it to them.”
But Borges has also scored incredible successes. Last year, she was part of an international team that DNA-tested the 70-year old bone fragments of Private Lawrence Gordon, a missing World War II soldier. Gordon's family knew he'd been killed in 1944 during an Allied attack on a German stronghold in France. Of the 44 casualties in his division, 43 were identified and returned to their families. Gordon was the only one unaccounted for—until Borges and her team helped positively identify his remains. He had been mistakenly buried as an unknown soldier in a German cemetery. Gordon's family was able to recover his remains and bury the soldier with his family in Canada.
“Each day can be like two sides of a coin,” Borges said. “Sometimes, things just don’t work out. Other times can be rewarding and remind you that every second in the lab affects a real life.”