Iowa State awarded $20 million for Forensic Science Center


By Matthew Rezab, [email protected]

Alicia Carriquiry, statistician and Distinguished Professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences, will lead the new Forensic Science Center for Excellence at Iowa State.

Matthew Rezab

Iowa State has been awarded a five-year, up to $20 million grant to form an on-campus Forensic Science Center of Excellence by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

If approved by the Iowa Board of Regents, the center will be the first dedicated to digital and pattern forensics in the country, and the third NIST Center for Excellence. The Advanced Materials Center of Excellence and the Community Resilience Center of Excellence are also funded by NIST.

Alicia Carriquiry, Distinguished Professor in Liberal Arts and Sciences, will lead the center along with researchers from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the University of California, Irvine and the University of Virginia.

Carriquiry, who has worked in the field of ballistics with the FBI and the Academy of Science, was the lead author of the proposal to NIST, which went out in November 2014. 

“We hadn’t heard anything until the day before yesterday,” Carriquiry said on May 27.

She does not anticipate any problems gaining approval from the Board of Regents because the initiative is fully funded and there’s no issue of duplication because this would be the only national center of forensic sciences.

All of the funding for the Forensic Science Center will be delivered to the project’s home base at Iowa State, then distributed to the project’s partners, Carriquiry said.

“The entire grant comes to us, and we subcontract with them,” Carriquiry said. “So Iowa State gets all $20 million. We’ll be keeping approximately 40 percent at Iowa State and the other universities are keeping about 20 percent.”

The pattern forensic side of the center will focus on any evidence that is physical and leaves an image. Pattern forensics studies evidence such as finger prints, shoe prints, tool marks and firearms markings. 

Digital forensics studies any trace that someone invading a system leaves behind. Carriquiry said this can include things once thought impossible, such as using the rhythm with which someone uses the keyboard to help identify the culprit.

Yong Guan, associate professor in electrical and computer engineering and digital forensics team member, said digital forensics has long been a thorn in law enforcement’s side because of how quickly technology develops and changes.

“Digital forensics is a fast developing area,” Guan said. “Because of the [fast developing] computing technology, the smart phone devices, apple watches and other technologies. This brings opportunities for digital forensics, but on the other hand it also brings challenges.”  

Carriquiry said she hopes to be up and running by the fall and expects to have a small administrative staff, along with 30 to 40 researchers from inside and outside the ISU faculty and graduate student population.

The center plans to do everything from very basic research work to application in forensic labs. A mission of the center will be to train forensic scientists on the science behind some of its methods and to do a lot of outreach to judges, to lawyers to anyone who is involved in the courtroom, Carriquiry said.

“It’s good to put away the bad guys, but if you’re going to put them away make sure you put them away for the right reasons,” she said.

Guan said Iowa State is uniquely qualified to be the home base of the center because of its history of interdepartmental collaboration and work done in the past with the FBI and Department of Defense, along with state and local law enforcement agencies.

“When it comes to digital forensics we have the strongest team in the country,” Guan said.

Carriquiry said leading the Forensic Science Center is another reason she loves her job.

“This is one more example of how fun it is to pursue a career in statistics. You get to work in all kinds of weird areas,” she said.