Annica Gosch
April 26, 2022 | Human ID and Forensics

Young Investigator Annica Gosch on trace evidence and the transcriptome

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 Annica Gosch. Annica is currently a doctoral student at the Institute of Legal Medicine, University Hospital of Cologne, in the Department of Forensic Genetics.

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

As a result of my desire to understand the chemical rules and biological phenomena determining our lives, I studied Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Kiel. Whilst completing my Bachelor’s degree in a basic research lab, I discovered that what interested me most about science was how it could be applied to the problems surrounding us in our everyday life. That’s when I started looking into the more applied fields of research and got interested in forensic science.

I was given the opportunity to do research for my Master’s thesis in Prof. Dr. Cornelius Courts’ lab at the Department of Forensic Genetics of the University Hospital Schleswig-Holstein on the topic of forensic DNA transfer. I discovered that I very much enjoyed how the research was so very closely aligned with, and oriented towards, routine casework. I enjoyed how research questions arose from cases that we currently worked on and how the research outcome could then directly be applied to casework. In this way, a single researcher could be part of the entire workflow “from bench to crime-scene”. That’s when I decided that I wanted to continue working in the field of forensic genetics.

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

The major aim of my research is, very broadly speaking, to look at possibilities of contextualizing forensic trace evidence. That is to look beyond the question of who the biological stain came from and try to understand how it got to the place from where it was recovered.

During my Master’s thesis project, I was (and continue to be) interested in questions of DNA transfer. This means trying to understand and describe how biological trace material can be transferred between objects and individuals during activities related to, or completely unrelated to, a criminal event.

I quite recently started working at the Department of Forensic Genetics at the University Hospital in Cologne. For my Ph.D. project, I became interested in the contextualizing information encompassed by the transcriptome. Forensic mRNA analysis for the purpose of body fluid identification is already performed in routine casework analysis in some laboratories (e.g., my former lab in Kiel and my current one in Cologne). For my Ph.D. project, I am trying to figure out whether other questions of forensic relevance, such as the time of day a biological trace was deposited, are also encoded in and can be retrieved from transcriptomic data.

3. Please describe your typical day in the lab.

For me, there is no typical day in the lab with every day holding its own challenges and surprises. So one day, I might be explaining sampling procedures to a participant in my research project or extracting nucleic acids from my samples in the lab. On another day, I might discuss a complex criminal case on issues of DNA transfer with a colleague or teach an intern how to handle sensitive RNA samples. In between, I always try to squeeze in some time for perusing newly published studies to keep myself up-to-date with what other researchers are currently working on.

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

The most interesting part of my research is seeing how much information is encoded in the transcriptome even of biological samples of forensic stain type and how scientific methods can be used to parse and understand this information. This might not be surprising, yet it still fascinates me whenever I work on it.

5. What are the benefits of your project?

Being able to estimate the time of day a biological stain was deposited would enable new possibilities of evidence-based reconstruction of what truly happened at a crime scene.

Apart from that, by working on this project, I learn a lot about forensic RNA analysis in general. This is knowledge that I will be able to apply to other research projects analyzing the transcriptome for further questions of forensic relevance in the future.

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

Forensic traces represent a highly challenging sample material to work with. We are commonly dealing with mixtures of unknown composition, containing nucleic acids of low quantity and quality after being deposited on any type of surface you can come up with. In addition, the material is often used up after a single analysis and is thus irretrievable.

Being able to extract and purify nucleic acids in a reliable and reproducible manner and in amounts sufficient for subsequent analyses requires systematic planning of experiments. This planning is based on a thorough study of published scientific work as well as a regular exchange of knowledge with other researchers working on similarly challenging sample types.

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

Due to the difficulties described above, choosing the right methodology to process your samples is highly relevant in forensic research as well as in casework.

For our casework analysis procedure of RNA-DNA-coextraction for the purpose of mRNA-based body fluid identification (and potentially other questions of forensic relevance in the future), we use a number of QIAGEN products. These include the QIAamp DNA Mini Kit for DNA extraction, the QIAGEN Multiplex PCR Kit for end-point PCR of cDNA templates and the MinElute PCR Purification Kit for post-PCR purification. We have determined that these kits show the best and most reliable performance on our often challenging and variable input materials. QIAGEN has long experience working with forensic lab customers. It is valuable for me to know that QIAGEN products reach the extremely high quality standards required in the field of forensic genetics. (An example is that QIAGEN maintains a staff DNA profile database so that any potential reagent- or plasticware-based contamination can be cross-checked right away.)

What I additionally like about the QIAGEN products is the great support QIAGEN provides whenever we come up with a question. We know that, as forensic customers, we often have challenging requests requiring case-tailored solutions.

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

Outside of forensic science, I love playing Badminton and hiking or biking in nature. Since we recently moved to Cologne from Kiel, I very much enjoy exploring our new surroundings together with my husband. Apart from that, I thoroughly enjoy making music (playing the clarinet), a night of board or card games with friends, as well as good books.

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