Crime is afoot: Using footprint impressions to solve cases

Natalie Borga

Natalie Borga, a participant in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program, is pictured using a coordinate measuring machine (CMM) to create a three-dimensional characterization of footwear. As part of her internship, she investigated if a CMM can make an accurate comparison between a cast impression and the corresponding footwear sample. (Photo courtesy of Gene Bondoc, LSSD-Springfield)

Using a footprint from a crime scene to identify the suspect’s footwear may sound like part of a CSI episode, but Natalie Borga’s summer research is actually used to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection investigations. The senior from Duquesne University was a participant in the U.S Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship Program. This program provides undergraduate and graduate 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.

Before Borga started the internship, she was unaware that Customs and Border Protection had a forensics laboratory. “I soon learned that the laboratory system plays an important behind the scenes role in regulating the goods that come into the United States, as well as securing and protecting our ports of entry,” said Borga.

During her internship, Borga worked with a coordinate measuring machine (CMM) to create three-dimensional characterization of footwear. The purpose of this research was to determine if a CMM can make an accurate comparison between a cast impression and the corresponding footwear sample.

“The hope is that this technology will be able to support forensic efforts, specifically those related to national security, such as matching a suspect’s shoe to shoeprints found along the border or near a tunnel system.”

Natalie explains why the CMM is important to forensics, “In many cases high-resolution photographs of the impression evidence are taken and examined. However, this technique makes it impossible to accurately measure the tread depth. So, the CMM is useful in that the data collected encompasses all three dimensions.”

A typical day for Borga involved collecting data points from the footwear and cast impression using the CMM. She then analyzed the difference in dimensions between the two samples. Her work on this project cumulated in a large collection of data sets from both footwear and cast samples and the subsequent comparison between the two. By completing this preliminary work, she has expanded the project in several possible directions including the measurement of tire tread.

This opportunity helped Borga confirm her interest in a forensic science career and opened her eyes to a wide range of forensic career opportunities. “This internship was an engaging way to supplement my college education, and learn more about science-related opportunities within the federal government.”

As a senior, Borga will continue research for her thesis, “The effect of perfume interactions on individualized human scent profiles using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry”, and network with the various individuals she met during the internship. In the future, Borga hopes to work in a federal laboratory to help support large scale efforts to enhance national security.

Borga is enrolled in a five-year master’s program and will receive an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and a master’s degree in forensic science and law upon graduation.  Borga applied in order to experience forensic opportunities outside of what a Medical Examiner’s office or a local law enforcement agency offered.

The DHS 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.