A photo of a woman standing in front of bushes.
Ciara Rhodes, a VCU alum, is a doctoral candidate in the Center Integrative Life Sciences Education in VCU Life Sciences. (Contributed photo)

VCU Life Sciences doctoral student Ciara Rhodes receives National Institute of Justice fellowship

An alternative skeletal sampling technique for the recovery of DNA is the focus for the first-generation college student who finds inspiration in the lab and the classroom.

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Investigating the best methods for extracting DNA from skeletal remains, VCU Life Sciences doctoral student Ciara Rhodes has been awarded a highly competitive Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Institute of Justice.

The institute is the research, development and evaluation agency of the Justice Department, with a focus on improving knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science. Its fellowship program, which includes only two dozen graduate students nationwide this year, aims to increase the pool of scholars engaged in related research, particularly at state and local levels.

Rhodes is a doctoral candidate in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education, where students conduct research that is integrative across multiple disciplines. Her fellowship focus – the evaluation of cell capture and collection from bone – explores whether the gold standard of obtaining of DNA from weathered or otherwise challenged skeletal remains is helping or hurting the objective of achieving usable DNA.

Traditionally, sampling skeletal remains for human identification involves pulverizing the sample with a mortar, pestle and liquid nitrogen. The hard tissue structure of bone protects the DNA, and the conventional processing method requires a small cutting of the bone that is crushed into powder to extract genomic material.

“This a highly destructive process that consumes potentially limited sample,” Rhodes said.

Her research investigates whether it would be more efficient, and would yield better results, to “pluck” individual cells from thinly sliced bone tissue.

“Using cell capture methods, such as optical tweezers or micromanipulation techniques, to isolate cells from aged or degraded skeletal remains may eliminate” some of the downsides to current processes, Rhodes said.

The recent fellowship is not the first honor for Rhodes. She also has received a Forensic Sciences Foundation Research (Kenneth S. Field) Grant from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences as well as a scholarship from the Mid-Atlantic Association of Forensic Scientists.

“Ciara is an exemplary student who has positively contributed to her peers, our graduate program and her research field,” said Stephen S. Fong, Ph.D., director of the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education. ”It’s always satisfying to see external agencies acknowledge the impact of students like Ciara by supporting their research and career.”

Despite Rhodes’ achievements, her path toward a dissertation has not been easy. A first-generation college student, the 2010 Hanover High School graduate self-funds her education, often juggling a job and course load simultaneously.

Rhodes earned an associate of science degree from Reynolds Community College in 2016 and enrolled that fall in VCU’s forensic science program in the College of Humanities and Sciences. She graduated in 2019 with a degree in forensic biology and a minor in chemistry, and it was her undergraduate experience in the forensic molecular biology research lab of associate professor Sarah Seashols-Williams, Ph.D., where Rhodes began considering graduate studies.

She applied – and was admitted – to both the Center for Integrative Life Sciences Education Ph.D. program and M.S. in Forensic Science program. The two-year master’s program is designed to prepare students for careers as forensic scientists in government and private laboratories, but Rhodes decided that while a Ph.D. would take longer, the journey would be more fulfilling.

“My passion for research has grown tremendously while at VCU, and the Integrative Life Sciences doctoral program allows me to explore the many ever-growing research opportunities in forensic science and molecular biology,” she said.

Amid the challenges of COVID, a graduate research assistantship helped Rhodes during her first years as a doctoral student, but 2022 left her looking for funding in order to continue. She accepted a graduate teaching assistant role in the Molecular Capstone Laboratory in VCU’S Department of Biology, where she found that students often lacked the writing skills to be effective scientific communicators – a need that inspires her efforts in the classroom.

“It doesn’t stop when you graduate – you need to communicate effectively throughout your career,” Rhodes said.  Seeing students embracing and understanding the writing process “feels like I am succeeding in a mission. I have found that the ability to articulate complex ideas to audiences that do not have a science background has made me a stronger person, student and mentor.”

The new fellowship provides a stipend, paid tuition and other funding, so Rhodes will be able to step away from teaching and focus on her research and writing, in preparation for her dissertation defense in 2024. But she wants to remain connected to the community and the classroom.

“I hope to work with the Forensic Science Department for outreach in Richmond city schools during the spring 2024 semester, as I will finally have more time to do so,” Rhodes said.