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UTA student’s drug detection system could nail suspects at scene

UTA student's project could help detect drugs

UTA junior Jessica Lilley talks about her research in a technique to detect drugs.
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UTA junior Jessica Lilley talks about her research in a technique to detect drugs.

A panicked rush to flush illegal drugs when the cops come looking might not be foolproof as a suspect might think — not if a University of Texas at Arlington student’s research project pans out.

Jessica Lilley, a junior majoring in biology and microbiology and minoring in chemistry and psychology, has developed a process to detect drug residue on a suspect’s fingerprint taken at the crime scene.

“I would just need to take a thumbprint,” she said, “and I could tell you within a minute whether this person had been in contact with a drug” — and which drug. “This expedites the process.”

Lilley is among 144 student researchers, mostly teams, from all eight colleges and schools at the University of Texas at Arlington who are presenting their work at the Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students on Wednesday.

The projects are presented on 3-foot-by-4-foot poster boards. The winners from each school win cash prizes for graduate students ($250) and undergrads ($200), and runners-up will receive other accolades.

This is ACES’s 13th year, although the university has always had some form of “research day,” said Raymond Jackson, associate dean of graduate studies and organizer of the event.

“It’s an important professional recognition,” Jackson said. “We are truly looking to acknowledge students who have exceeded expectations, gone above and beyond.”

Lilley’s detection process uses a laser and a mass spectrometer to break down the molecular structure of the residue of a fingerprint and identify drugs by their molecular weight.

Lilley, a Watauga native carrying a 3.871 grade-point average, said there is similar research going on in Germany but that it uses latent prints lifted from surfaces, which can be easily contaminated.

When a suspect is available, she said, her process is much more accurate.

“My fingerprint comes directly from the suspect,” she said, “so I can prove it’s that person directly.”

And the process isn’t fooled by hand-washing to remove evidence. To test that, she diluted her sample drugs, dipped her fingers in it, washed her hands with soap and water, then touched a finger to the spectrometer screen.

“It was still able to detect it,” she said. “The mass spectrometer is strong. It can detect a very low concentration of the drug.”

Lilley started work on her project last summer in Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, which provided some funding and lower-level drugs for her research.

Getting drugs for research in the U.S. would have been more difficult, she said, describing Prague as “a little looser” but also having an interest in her research because of its high crime rate and drug-smuggling problem.

Although Prague wouldn’t provide such known street drugs as cocaine or heroine, she said her identification process works the same for virtually all drugs.

Lilley, who returned to UTA in the fall to finish her work, said she sees applications for her process beyond crime scenes. Speeding up security searches at airports, for example.

“If you do a fingerprint scan at the time, you can know right away without having to do drug searches,” she said.

For a career, Lilley isn’t considering crime fighter.

“I’ve grown up wanting to be a doctor,” she said, preferring science because “there’s something about it that’s not as painful as math, but it still gives you an exact answer — which is what I like.”

Lilley’s drug-detection project won’t be the only innovative research presented in the competition. Here’s a sampling:

▪ Assessing the Microbiology of Malting and Brewing by MALDI-TOF MS

▪ The Effects of Culling and Quarantine on Reducing Antibiotic Resistance in a Cohort of Beef Cattle

▪ Effects of Therapy Dogs on Mood States of College Students

▪ Dependency of used car price on odometer reading and exterior color

▪ Handwriting Apps in the Kindergarten Classroom Enhance Manual Dexterity but not Handwriting Skills

▪ Predicting a Quarterback's Fantasy Football Point Output for Daily Fantasy Sports using Statistical Models

▪ Skin Cancer Detection mobile app with the use of thermal imaging

Robert Cadwallader: 817-390-7186, @Kaddmann_ST

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