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A closer look at the forensic science of fibers

By Rachel Palermo '15
October 8, 2012

Associate Professor of Chemistry Doug Beussman '92 in his lab with a key component of his research: a shirt. Beussman and student researchers are looking for new ways to analyze fibers found in crime scene investigations.

A new grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) will enable St. Olaf College students to conduct the type of forensic research seen on CSI or Law and Order in labs right here on the Hill.

Associate Professor of Chemistry Doug Beussman '92 received a $114,000 grant from the institute that he will use to work with at least six students over the the next three years on research involving the analysis of trace forensic evidence using isotope ratio mass spectrometry. The research aims to develop new ways to analyze fibers found in crime scene investigations.

Currently, when fiber or thread is found at a crime scene, only the color and the kind of fabric can be determined — neither of which is specific to a given shirt. However, the atoms in the molecules of the fabric can relate to where the material is from because the environment affects the pattern of isotopes. Different white cotton T-shirts have different isotope patterns and can be distinguished from one another. Connecting the T-shirt fibers found at the scene of a crime to the T-shirt of a suspect brings investigators one step closer to justice.

"A connection between the fibers would count as circumstantial evidence, and often times in court cases enough circumstantial evidence leads to a verdict in the case," Beussman says.

St. Olaf was one of 11 schools — and the only liberal arts college — to earn this grant from the NIJ. Beussman will select students for the project from a variety of majors based on their interest in fiber analysis or desire to pursue a career in the field of forensic science.

A tiny strand of fiber is all that's needed for analysis.

Beussman's interest in pursuing fiber analysis research was sparked in 2009 when the National Science Foundation awarded St. Olaf College a $567,780 grant to purchase an isotope ratio mass spectrometer. Using this state-of-the-art piece of equipment and a grant from the St. Olaf Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program, Beussman and a student researcher were able to begin differentiating between cotton fibers in brands of white T-shirts. 

Once Beussman began conducting preliminary research using the grant from CURI, he realized there was enough data to pursue the research on a larger scale. Supported by the grant from the NIJ, Beussman will now be able expand his fiber analysis research and work with even more St. Olaf students.

This grant from the NIJ will provide research stipends for two students each summer over the next three years. It will also provide any supplies needed, and it includes travel expenses for the research teams to present research at the American Academy of Forensic Science annual conference. The grant will also cover supply costs for other students who may want to work on the project as part of an independent research project during the academic year for course credit.

Earning this grant is only the beginning of Beussman's pursuit of fiber analysis. He plans to analyze more colors and different fabrics, and eventually he will apply for another grant to pursue research on plastic fibers with St. Olaf students. However, he has learned from his past research experience to keep an open mind regarding the path the research will take. 

"Every time you do research, it opens up new questions and new opportunities," he says.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or