Young Investigator Julia Wang on microbiomes and sexual assault evidence
April 27, 2023 | Human ID and Forensics

Young Investigator Julia Wang on microbiomes and sexual assault evidence

The Young Investigator Community is a forum for young forensic researchers and graduate students. The new Investigator blog is a place to meet one of these talented researchers where they can share their achievements and aspirations with their peers, friends and colleagues. Read on to find out what attracted this month’s blogger to forensic science. Share with them the excitement of discovery that sustains a passionate commitment to their work.

This new Investigator blog introduces Julia Wang. Julia is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Forensic Science at Sam Huston State University (SHSU) in Texas.

1. Tell us about your background and how you became interested in forensic science?

My curiosity for natural sciences first led me to study human biology at the University of Texas at Austin. Wanting to apply and deepen my understanding of cell biology and its applications, I continued my education by pursuing a Master’s degree in biotechnology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler. Being able to pose my own research questions and watching scientists of various backgrounds expand the state-of-the-art in real time inspired me and nourished my passion for research. After spending a few years in animal and clinical research, I recognized that I wanted to research in an applied science where the fruits of the labor could be seen within my lifetime.
Without realizing it, I had crossed paths with forensic science multiple times in my life – as a child seeing the rise and fall of a local crime lab, as an undergraduate and graduate student in elective courses, and now as an adult searching for a science in which to develop her career. Forensic science felt like a natural fit. Now I am proud to say that I research topics that I am passionate about while applying a curiosity for cell and molecular biology that has driven me for the majority of my life. I am currently a doctoral candidate at the Department of Forensic Science of Sam Houston State University, studying with Dr. Rachel Houston and Dr. Sheree Hughes.

2. Can you provide a summary of the project you are working on?

My dissertation is focused on alternative analysis methods of sexual assault evidence. For one of my dissertation projects, I am characterizing differences in vaginal and penile microbiomes. The presence of microbiota can provide valuable insight to cases that are difficult to analyze with traditional sexual assault evidence processing. By sequencing V3 and V4 regions of bacterial 16S rRNA gene, I hope to shed light on the potential transfer and persistence of genital microbiota in sexual assault evidence.

3. Please describe your typical day in the lab.

Like many of my fellow researchers and students, I never expect to have a typical day in the lab. Depending on which project I am working on that day, I may be performing traditional HID, constructing my own equipment for immunocytochemistry slide preparation, or resurrecting an instrument that has not been touched for nearly a decade. Thankfully with the support of my lab group, known at SHSU as Team DNA, all of the challenges I face are less daunting and more of a group effort. The most rewarding days are when I am demonstrating methods or instruments to new graduate students and watching their knowledge and confidence grow.

4. What do you find most interesting about your project? Have you seen any surprising results?

To me, this microbiome project is the culmination of many interesting features. Although the forensic field has been aware of the potential applications of microbiome informatics, one of the previous obstacles was the lack of next-generation sequencing (NGS) in crime labs. This is no longer the case as more and more crime labs are validating NGS for casework. Another interesting aspect is that compared to the vaginal microbiome, penile microbiomes are far less studied and characterized. I have seen differences between individual vaginal and penile microbiota, and I am now greatly looking forward to observing the microbiota transfer within donor couples.

5. What are the benefits of your project?

My research seeks to fill the gaps in sexual assault evidence testing by utilizing evidence that may only yield negative results in traditional screening and processing. This research could provide forensic analysts a powerful tool to employ when they have no other hope in their sexual assault evidence. If microbiome differences are found to persist even after showering, sexual assault evidence could be expected to reliably contribute probative information even if evidence collection is greatly delayed. This research will help to diversify the avenues of analysis available to forensic biologists.

6. What are the major challenges faced while working on your project and how do you overcome them?

Because microbial samples are sensitive to environmental changes, contamination is a risk. As microbial composition is considered unstable immediately following collection, samples have to be immediately frozen by the volunteer donors in a particular sample preservation device. Since human microbiomes are sensitive to a variety of factors including but not limited to diet, medication and lifestyle, it can be difficult to characterize samples with high variability. By collecting comprehensive metadata from volunteer donors, we can better understand variability encountered with real world microbiome samples.

7. Which QIAGEN products do you use and what do you like about the products?

As diverse as my dissertation projects are, I use a variety of QIAGEN products for all of them.

For more traditional HID applications, I use the Investigator Casework GO! Kit and the QIAamp DNA Investigator Kit for DNA extraction. I use the QIAcube Connect and the EZ1 Advanced XL for automated extraction and purification. I rely on the Investigator Quantiplex Pro Kit for sensitive multiplex qPCR quantification and the Investigator 24plex QS Kit for PCR amplification of mock sexual assault evidence samples.

For my microbiome project, I use the Verogen MiSeq FGx Sequencing System to analyze various microbiome samples. The MiSeq FGx Sequencing System is an intuitive platform for when I am sequencing 16S rRNA for my research project or when I am demonstrating the HID sequencing capabilities of Verogen ForenSeq DNA Signature Prep Kit in a lab course.

From the user interface to troubleshooting specific problems, I know that I can depend on QIAGEN to provide thorough support. Just as QIAGEN seeks to deliver solutions from Sample to Insight, I want to open up an avenue of insight that can come from samples that were previously seen as hopeless. I can count on high quality and reliable products from QIAGEN for my research.

8. Outside of forensic science, what are your hobbies?

When I am not in the lab, I am playing puzzle-based video games and reading from a variety of genres, which helps to keep my scientific writing diverse and refreshed. I also enjoy hiking and long distance running.