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Beussman analyzes date-rape drugs, prepares for FBI sabbatical

By Trent Chaffee '09
May 22, 2009

In explaining the reason behind their interest in forensic science, most college students describe plots from high-action and fast-paced detective television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation that are grounded in scientific methods, but take liberties in production. So when St. Olaf students enter Doug Beussman's forensics laboratory, the associate professor of chemistry encourages them to approach their work with patient enthusiasm.

Using a mass spectrometer, Beussman's new analytical method can detect if a glass of cola has been spiked with a date-rape drug from a small drop, or the beverage's residue from the night before.
"Science is exciting, but it's also a slow process," says Beussman, who graduated from St. Olaf in 1992. "It takes days, weeks, and maybe years to make progress. Not everything happens in 60 minutes like it does on TV."

Beussman, an analytical chemist who is interested in determining the composition and quantity of substances, created the forensic science research program at St. Olaf. The program includes two courses designed for non-majors, and an independent student and faculty research project that focuses on the detection of controlled date-rape drugs in liquid substances.

After three years of careful design and experimentation, Beussman and student researchers Sarah Stevens '07, Jessica Albright '09, Tegan Shoener '09 and Anna Larson '10 finished collecting data on two of the most common date-rape drugs: ketamine and rohypnol. The group of researchers will co-author two journal articles before Beussman leaves this fall for a year-long sabbatical at the FBI's Research and Development Laboratory in Quantico, Va.

Designing new detection methods
Beussman and his student researchers chose to study date rape drugs because they wanted to pick a topic relevant to college-age students. After reviewing previous work on the subject, the group found published methods for analyzing a full beverage containing a date rape drug, but not for an empty glass containing only a few drops of liquid or the coating of residue from that night or the morning after.

Their research addresses a gap in date rape forensic research, and allows Beussman to use his expertise in mass spectrometry, an analytical technique that allows researchers to measure the mass and make-up of chemicals and molecules. "We thought this might be a useful test because in many date rape scenarios, the victim does not know what happened, and if they wait until the next day to get tested, there may be no biological evidence," says Beussman. "The only place left to look is the beverage container."

Each date-rape drug is tested in four beverages: water, cola, beer and a fruit smoothie -- all of which are poured into glasses to simulate a date-rape scenario at an event. After a drink that contains a known amount of a date-rape drug is poured out of a glass (to simulate consumption of the beverage), water is added to collect the remaining drop. A sample is then taken and inserted into a mass spectrometer for analysis, and the results appear on a computer screen.

In the ketamine and rohypnol experiments, each date rape drug was detected at 1/100 of the amount of a normal dosage, which would be ineffective. Beussman and his summer student researcher, Sarah Cable '10, also plan to conduct similar experiments and publish results on the date-rape drugs ecstasy and GHB.

On to the FBI
Beussman is not the first scientist with a St. Olaf connection to work in FBI labs. Erin Hoffman '06, a former Beussman student and currently an investigator in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, completed a summer internship in the FBI labs as an undergraduate. That's when she learned of a yearlong sabbatical position for college faculty and encouraged Beussman to apply.

While at the FBI, Beussman will be asked to develop new ways to analyze forensic evidence that can be used in other labs across the country. Besides helping with FBI initiatives, Beussman's sabbatical goals will include learning about new techniques and materials to utilize in his forensics courses and, if possible, he'd like to bring unfinished research projects back to St. Olaf for student-faculty research.

"I'm hoping to learn things and be able to bring them back to drive the research that I do with students." He also would like to begin an ongoing collaboration between St. Olaf and the FBI (one of the laboratories where Beussman will be researching is managed by Brian Eckenrode, who has conducted seminars in Beussman's forensics classes at St. Olaf).

But many hours of experimentation and analysis still await Beussman this summer before he leaves for Virginia. That gives him plenty of time to burst another of his students' crime television fantasies.

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or