Nov. 19, 2021
Class of 2021: Triniti Turner is driven by a passion for research and forensic science
The graduating student’s experiences include time in a forensic molecular biology lab and as a research intern at the National Institutes of Health.
Share this story
As an undergraduate researcher in a Virginia Commonwealth University forensic molecular biology lab, Triniti Turner has been working on projects focused on DNA mixture separation analysis and on modifying an existing process for extracting DNA from teeth samples.
“I love true crime and reading about the actual specifics of the case and trying to determine who could have committed the crime,” Turner said. “Some cases that I read really resonated with me and had me wishing that I could do something to prevent such incidents from repeating, or at least help bring justice to those who weren’t given any.
“Biology has also always been one of my favorite subjects in school so when I found out there was a degree that combined these two interests of mine, I knew that was the degree for me,” she added. “Forensic science is a relatively new field and it’s advancing rather quickly so it’s exciting to be a part of its growth in helping to solve crimes faster and better identify offenders.”
Turner, who will graduate in December with a degree from the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is a work-study researcher in the lab of professor and department chair Tracey Dawson Green, Ph.D., who describes Turner as “quiet, but funny and easygoing in a way that has a positive effect on [everyone in the lab].”
“Even as an undergraduate, she is mature, well-balanced, focused and hardworking,” Dawson Green said. She said Turner is a “pleasure to have in our lab group.”
“Her persistent, but patient and courteous nature led to several additional experiential learning experiences in the department over the past couple of years, including her work in my lab — which began as volunteer work,” Dawson Green said.
Turner transferred to VCU from Northern Virginia Community College in 2019. She was drawn to VCU because its forensic science program is one of only two in Virginia and fewer than 50 nationally to be accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission.
Malaria research at the NIH
As an undergrad, Turner interned for two summers at the National Institutes of Health, conducting research focused on malaria.
“Every year hundreds of thousands of people die from malaria and children are the ones who are most affected,” she said. “It’s been recognized that children in heavy malaria transmitted regions are often extremely symptomatic versus adults from the same regions who seldom show symptoms.”
Her research at the NIH involved identifying proteins in the blood samples of infected and noninfected people to determine which proteins could be responsible for producing such overactive immune responses in children and which were responsible for the absence of symptoms in adults. She contributed to research that was published in Malaria Journal and presented it at conferences across the country.
At VCU, her interest in research drew her to Spit for Science, a universitywide longitudinal study focused on substance use and behavioral health in which all incoming VCU students over age 18 are invited to participate.
“I first learned about the Spit for Science program through one of my biology courses,” she said. “I had seen fliers for it too posted around campus. I was interested in applying because I wanted to gain some experience in genetic research, build on the research skills I had and contribute to mental health and drug abuse awareness.”
Turner contributed to two Spit for Science projects, one investigating drinking among students amid COVID-19 and the other focused on genome association studies based on saliva DNA samples from past student cohorts.
“I enjoyed the experience of looking at real data from campus, seeing how it compares to data from other studies and the pandemic’s effect on alcohol behaviors,” Turner said.
Sharing a love of science
Through a Department of Forensic Science service-learning course, Turner has shared her passion for forensic science with middle school students in Richmond Public Schools, helping to teach forensic science basics as part of an after-school program.
“I’m lucky that the school I’m working with has kids who are really interested in forensic science,” she said. ”Science is a subject that a lot of students I think shy away from because it is a complex subject, so being able to engage students in activities that make science more appealing and fun is pivotal in helping expand the future generation of STEM.”
Following graduation, Turner plans to take a bit of a break from science and will fulfill a longtime dream of living and traveling in East Asia. She’ll be teaching English in South Korea, and is looking forward to working toward becoming fluent in Korean.
Eventually, however, she plans to return and pursue a career in STEM. She’s considering returning to the NIH for post-baccalaureate research, and is interested in one day getting a doctorate in genetic or virology research.
“I also wouldn’t mind working for the FBI and continuing to work in the forensic field,” she said. “I’m just going to keep taking advantage of the opportunities that are sent to me and see where it takes me.”
When Turner graduates next month, Dawson Green said the department will be cheering for her.
“Her academic success, along with her work in the lab and in our service-learning course, are indicators of her leadership potential and easily places her among our top graduates this year,” she said. “We are all very proud of Triniti and grateful for her contributions to our research and service mission in the Forensic Science Department.”