Fort Worth DNA expert has strong link to 9-11

Posted Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Memorial ceremony • The 9/11 Flight Crew Memorial in Grapevine will hold a flag-lowering ceremony this morning on the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. • The event, which begins at 7:46 a.m. at 1000 Texan Trail, will include the debut of a bronze sculpture to honor the firefighters who died that day. — Andrea Ahles

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When she watched on television as the second plane flew into the World Trade Center, Rhonda Roby didn’t immediately realize how quickly her life was going to change.

But it didn’t take long for her phone to ring as she was asked to help on a case that would consume much of the next four years of her life.

As one of the leading forensic experts in mitochondrial DNA — the genetic material inherited from the mother that can provide clues to ancestry — Roby was considered an asset in helping to identify victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Now an associate professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, Roby was working at Applied Biosystems in California when she got the call.

By Sept. 13 — when most planes in the United States were still grounded — she would hop aboard a private jet in Oakland, Calif., and fly cross-country to White Plains, N.Y., picking up other scientists along the way.

“I literally left with nothing,” Roby said. “I had my computer bag and computer.”

Roby, part of a team of 59 scientists brought in from across the country to identify victims, stood amid the rubble at the World Trade Center and processed what was ahead of her.

“How am I going to do this?” Roby said. “That’s all I kept thinking about.”

She also noticed that the gigantic crime scene was being contaminated as first responders moved through the debris — but felt that was unavoidable under the circumstances.

By Sept. 20, she had been moved to Rockville, Md., where she worked as lab director as victims were identified. She eventually quit her job in California and did contract work with the New York City medical examiner’s office so she could finish working on the World Trade Center case.

“I felt like I was serving my country,” Roby said. “I feel that very strongly.”

She said many technological advances were made in forensic science while scientists worked to identify 9-11 victims.

Improvements in software, chemistry and robotics came directly from 9-11. As an example, she said the UNT Health Science Center’s robots can extract up to 86 DNA samples at once. That wasn’t really being done before 9-11.

“We saw this need because of the events of 9-11, and we implemented them and once they were implemented, other people started including them in their caseworking applications,” Roby said.

Working on the 9-11 victims, Roby processed 21,000 samples of mitochondrial DNA, she said.

“I was responsible for the mitochondrial DNA sequencing of it and so we did those in duplicates — that’s 42,000 samples — that’s a lot of samples,” Roby said. “I can manage 100. I can manage 200. But when you get into numbers like that, you have to really compartmentalize them into batches. Now we do batch casework. You’ll see more batch casework being done now.”

Roby’s fascination with forensic science began when she was 13 in Oklahoma City and followed the rape and murder of three girls at Camp Scott in northeast Oklahoma in 1977.

That case fueled an interest that has continued through the World Trade Center investigation and when she helped Chile identify citizens who disappeared during the Augusto Pinochet regime.

In the World Trade Center and Chilean cases, Roby got to meet relatives of victims, which was important to her. As a professor, she doesn’t spend much time working directly on cases. But when she helps explain the science to relatives, it reminds her of the importance of forensic work.

“If I can meet a family member every year, once a year, it gives me the drive, the energy to keep doing what we’re doing, just for the work that’s being done here,” Roby said.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna

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