Researching the geographic origin of illicit gemstones seized at U.S. borders

Jessica Elinburg

Jessica Elinburg, an undergraduate from Emory University, used spectroscopic methods to analyze different gemstones confiscated from individuals at U.S. ports of entry. (Photo courtesy of Gene Bondoc, LSSD-Springfield)

Regardless of whether undergraduate chemist Jessica Elinburg would say diamonds are a girl’s best friend, she has certainly spent a lot of time getting to know them better. Elinburg had a unique assignment as part of her summer research internship—inspecting and analyzing gemstones, particularly diamonds, at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Laboratories and Scientific Services Directorate (LSSD) facility in Springfield, Va.

“One of the most surprising things I learned was that diamonds rarely appear in nature like you stereotypically see in jewelry stores. Most look like small, black, unpolished rocks,” Elinburg said.

Elinburg was a participant in the U.S Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship program. This program provides undergraduate students majoring in homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the U.S.

Elinburg, a chemistry major at Emory University, used various spectroscopic methods, such as infrared, Raman and UV visible light spectroscopies to observe illicit gemstones seized at different U.S. ports of entry. “Spectroscopy involves passing electro-magnetic waves, (light rays, laser beams, etc.) through a compound to generate its spectrum,” Elinburg explained. “One diamond’s spectrum may differ from the spectra of other diamonds, based on deformations, impurities and trace minerals present in the sample. Identifying these features may help to determine geographically where the diamond formed in the Earth.”

According to Elinburg, some stones may contain a really high concentration of an impurity, such as boron for example. “If all of these stones are known to originate from South Africa,” said Elinburg, “future researchers can predict that stones with large boron impurities originate near the same area.”

Coming in with certain expectations of a federal laboratory environment, Elinburg was surprised by her experience. “My initial predictions about the on-goings of a federal lab were completely shattered as soon as I set foot into LSSD on my first day,” she said. “The number of different projects the laboratory undertakes is overwhelming—there are ongoing collaborations with many different branches of the U.S. government. But besides all of that, I was surprised that as an undergraduate I really could contribute to the high-impact research going on at a federal lab.”

Gaining this research experience in the federal laboratory environment helped Elinburg to confirm her plans to pursue a doctoral degree in chemistry. “This internship solidified my decision to pursue an advanced degree, especially because it helped me realize that there are so many career paths you can pursue when you have a science background.” Upon receiving her doctoral degree, Elinburg envisions herself working in government, industry or academia.

Her advice to students who are considering applying to the program is prepare to think independently, learn to troubleshoot problems, and most importantly be patient. “Thorough and accurate results cannot be achieved in a rush,” Elinburg said. “Though it was tempting to hurry through when I had a thousand samples to run, I learned how to be patient, and it has improved my research skills. I would wholeheartedly recommend anyone to apply to the program, because you’re bound to learn a lot, and it’s also a great research experience.”

The HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.