Posted: September 12, 2006
9/11 DNA Analyst Lends Talents To Health Science Center DNA Lab
Rhonda Roby slowly clicks through the slides on her computer, beginning with a photo of the World Trade Center before 9/11, and explains the work she does.
One by one the slides tell the tale of what happened after one of the nation’s greatest disasters as she describes her part in resolving the tragedy for hundreds of people.
Her eyes grow red and tear as she talks about the victim’s families.
Then she quietly admits she gets emotional when she thinks about those days.
Roby and a team of scientists were put into place to analyze thousands of samples of DNA from victims of the World Trade Center attack.
For years they worked tirelessly to help families get back what terrorists took away — their loved ones.
Roby said she still clearly remembers where she was when she heard the news the WTC had been attacked.
“I was in bed in California, and my mother called me because my brother lives in New York City,” she said. “I had conferencing capabilities at my home, so we were able to conference in and talk to my brother.
“In fact, we were on the phone with him when he saw the second plane go into the building.”
Later that day, Roby received another call about the WTC tragedy.
“That day, I got a phone call and was told, ‘We anticipate half a million to a million specimens,’” she said. “They didn’t know how many people had survived. With what they were able to see, with the sheer impact, they knew it would be lots and lots of people.”
Roby said over time, the number of specimens to be tested decreased as the numbers of survivors and victims became more clear, but she and the other scientists who worked together had to move quickly to establish protocols that were not only legal, but would also ensure the highest amount of accuracy in the shortest amount of time.
“We knew the data analysis would be incredible and was something we weren’t prepared for,” she said. “We didn’t know how we would handle that.”
Roby said multiple teams of forensic scientists cooperated to establish a system that would accurately analyze the 21,000 specimens they received from the WTC attack.
The emotion she feels comes not for the victims she helped identify, but for their families, she said.
“I had some families tell me, ‘I don’t need you to tell me my family member is dead,’” she said, “but I had other family members wrap their arms around me and thank me when I met them.”
Roby admits she has a passion for her work, but she is quick to deflect credit for her accomplishments from herself to each of the teams she has worked with on major projects, from the World Trade Center to identifying the remains of soldiers killed in the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War II.
She was also part of the team who helped identify the Branch Davidians killed in Waco in 1993 and helped identify Tsar Nicholas II and the Romanov family. She is currently a team member in the identification of Christopher Columbus. Roby was also the chief DNA analyst for the identification of the victims from the April 3, 1996, airline disaster carrying Secretary Ron Brown and colleagues.
“Everything I have done has been as part of a team,” Roby said. “So, I feel like I have been a part of innovations [in the field of DNA analysis], but I don’t want you to feel I’ve done any one of those things singlehandedly.
“That 85 percent of the forensic labs are using technology I helped develop makes me sleep easy at night, because I feel like part of those cases are solved because I helped develop that technology. But it’s not like if Rhonda Roby had never existed, it wouldn’t have happened. Someone would have developed it, but I was a part of it.”
Now Roby is at the health science center working with Arthur Eisenberg, PhD, director of the DNA identity laboratory, to set up the tools she used in her work at the World Trade Center.
“Art has a vision, and I believe in his vision, of a national missing persons database — a national database of DNA from the Americans that have someone missing from their family,” Roby said. “What we want to do is drop in the technology into the lab here like we did for the World Trade Center so they can process the samples in a higher throughput fashion.”
Roby said she looks forward to helping the DNA lab become more efficient without losing accuracy, and she said the robotics and chemistry used to extract DNA from samples from victims and their families would speed the time in which comparisons — and potential matches — could be made without sacrificing any accuracy.
“We have thousands of missing persons around the country and possibly hundreds of skeletal remains in a single medical examiner’s office that nobody can link to anybody,” she said. “So if we can sweep the dust off an old box of skeletal remains that’s been sitting in a medical examiner’s office for 20 years, and if this lab can test those remains and create a DNA profile, and if this program can get the visibility it needs for families to submit their DNA for comparison to these old skeletal remains, multiple identifications can be made.”
Roby spent the fifth anniversary of 9/11 abroad — first in Chile as she works to help correctly identify victims of the Pinochet Regime, then to Spain to continue work on her doctorate. She will return to the health science center in October.
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