Forensics professor analyzes DNA to work a crime scene

Image of DNA molecule
Tuesday, April 24, 2012 - 10:01am
Kimberley Wright

With the exception of identical twins, everybody has a one-of-a-kind genetic code. Repetitive sections of our DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) make us unique, and just like a regular fingerprint, our DNA fingerprint can identify us wherever we go.

Dr. Hisham Ragab, a physician and forensic scientist who joined UTM’s Forensic Science department in July 2011, is an expert in deciphering DNA fingerprints. Using samples from saliva, hair, blood or bone, Ragab isolates stretches of repetitive DNA to generate an individual’s DNA profile. “When I started doing DNA analysis 20 years ago, it took six to eight weeks, and many steps, to come up with an accurate profile,” Ragab says. “Today, we are virtually at the stage where we can take a buccal (cheek) swab, stick it into a machine, and get a person’s full DNA profile in less than an hour.”

DNA fingerprinting, or profiling, first emerged in the mid-1980s and has since become a staple of modern crime-scene analysis. From front-page headlines to television crime-dramas, DNA is recognized as a powerful biological clue that can link a suspect to a crime, one crime scene to another, and unravel the identities of victims of violence. Even when there is no suspect at hand, today’s technology can generate a physical description for investigators to work with. “All it takes is a drop of blood, a bit of semen or a couple of hairs, and you can have a physical description of the person it belongs to, including complexion, height, eye and hair colour,” Ragab says.

Born and raised in Egypt, Ragab developed a fascination for forensics while he was still in medical school, where--unlike North America’s system--forensic science is a routine part of undergraduate physician training. Torn between a career in obstetrics and gynecology or forensic science, Ragab could not decide which specialty to choose following his internship and a year of general practice. “I spent a full month thinking about it, until the Dean told me I had one day left to decide,” Ragab says. “That’s when I finally chose forensics.”

With DNA profiling quickly gaining traction alongside traditional crime-solving methods, Ragab moved to Connecticut in 1992 to pursue his PhD studies under DNA expert, Dr. Henry Lee. Famous for his forensic work in high-profile cases involving OJ Simpson, Jon-Benét Ramsay, and the reinvestigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Dr. Lee mentored Ragab both professionally and personally. In 1996, Dr. Lee recommended Ragab for a key position in Abu Dhabi, to establish the first DNA laboratory in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“When we started the DNA project in Abu Dhabi, we had no facilities, no space, and the technicians assigned to me were not even scientists, they were regular police officers,” Ragab says. In addition to scientific challenges, Ragab also encountered cultural differences in the UAE. Much of his forensic case load focused on sexual assault or illegal sexual conduct, as any sexual conduct outside of the bond of marriage is considered illegal.

By 2009, Ragab and his team had built a new DNA laboratory which earned full accreditation and employed 26 staff. Ragab and his wife decided to move to Canada to find better educational opportunities for their young daughter. “I was the senior crime-scene examiner, laboratory technical director, and serology and DNA analyst, ” Ragab says. “Sometimes you feel that you have done enough.”

At UTM, Ragab’s on-the-ground experience will assist the forensic science program as it moves through accreditation with the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). For forensic science students, Ragab’s skill for piecing together a crime scene translates into a real-life, practical approach in the classroom. Ragab invites frequent guest speakers to the introductory forensic science course, and he prepares upper-year students to deal with routine problems encountered in casework, such as DNA degradation, sample contamination and the limitations of technology.

After more than 13 years of sifting through forensic evidence in the field, Ragab says he is happy to step into a UTM classroom and focus on academic teaching. “I want students to have a solid understanding of what forensic DNA really is,” Ragab says. “It’s different from working in a molecular biology lab or a genetics lab—it’s about cases and processing evidence. Forensics is evidence.”