When you think of a forensic scientist, your mind probably goes to shows like CSI or Forensic Files. Honestly, for a true crime enthusiast, the idea of speaking with someone who helps solve murder and rape cases is an absolute dream come true. We chatted with our personal hero, Professor Kelly Knight, who is a principal investigator at a university lab about how she became interested in forensics, and about how she hopes to one day solve a cold case using genetic genealogy.
What you do for a living, how did you choose your career, and how you get to where you are today?
I am currently an associate professor of forensic science. At our university, I am the principal investigator of the forensic DNA laboratory and I teach undergraduate and graduate courses in forensic serology, DNA, and chemistry. Prior to working as a professor, I was a DNA analyst at a crime lab. I worked in the technical unit of the forensic biology section which means I was involved in research, validation, training, quality assurance/quality control, forensic DNA casework, and court testimony.
I decided to pursue forensic science because of an anatomy and physiology blood typing lab in the 11th grade which first introduced me to forensic science. I loved how interdisciplinary forensic science was and how it was a true applied science. I initially began college as a pre-med student, thinking I’d go the med school route but quickly decided after my first semester that I didn’t want to do that. I ended up getting a B.S. in chemistry with a concentration in forensic chemistry, and then I went on to grad school to get an M.S. in forensic science with a concentration in forensic biology. During graduate school, I worked in a forensic biology research laboratory which set me up nicely to pursue positions in a crime lab after graduating.
Is there a certain case that you have worked on that has always haunted you or that is particularly memorable that you can share with us?
The most memorable case I worked on was the one that resulted in my first ‘DNA exoneration’. It was identified as a gang rape involving 4 suspects. I spent weeks testing a mountain of evidence from those suspects…none of it connecting to the victim or the crime scene. During this time, two of the suspects ended up being charged with the crime and were placed in jail while all of this testing was going on. There ended up being one item of evidence that produced a DNA profile that didn’t match any of the suspects but was eligible for upload to the DNA database (CODIS). That profile ended up matching to an individual who, at the time, was no where near even being considered as a suspect. The two jailed suspects ended up being released and the true perpetrator happened to already be back in jail for an unrelated crime. This case just really revealed to me for the first time the true ‘magic’ of DNA testing and the DNA database.
When you hear about a big case in the media that you are not working on, do you ever do a deep dive to try to solve it yourself?
I wouldn’t say I’ve done necessarily a deep dive to try to solve any cases myself, but there have certainly been cases that result in my doing some research on my own. One example would be the Golden State Killer case that was recently solved using genetic genealogy. As a result of that case, I have become somewhat ‘obsessed’ with genetic genealogy and any cases involving it. I am sort of an amateur genealogist myself of my family history, so between that and my background in forensic DNA, I’m hoping to one day connect the two and become a genetic genealogist myself.
Where can our readers find you?
I’m on Facebook, Instagram, & now TikTok: @kellythescientist and I’m on Twitter as well: ScientistKK