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The Case of the Tainted Crab

September 12, 2010

After a few bites of the dressed crab she ordered at Lucy’s Restaurant, a diner named Dr. Actin became violently ill. Her throat began to close up, her heart rate accelerated, and she was wracked with severe abdominal pains—unmistakable symptoms of the dangerous allergic reaction known as anaphylactic shock. Her husband dialed 911 and within a few minutes paramedics were on the scene, administering treatment.

The good news is that Dr. Actin recovered fully. But nagging questions remained: Since she wasn’t allergic to crab, why had she gotten so sick? Was the crab tainted?

Had someone attempted to poison Dr. Actin?

A unique collaboration between two colleges

As it turns out, the incident, Dr. Actin and Lucy’s Restaurant were all elements in a fictitious but compelling case study presented to BMCC students in a summer workshop in forensic science.

The summer program, which is coordinated by Professor Nanette van Loon of the Department of Science, is part of a unique collaboration begun last year between BMCC and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which allows qualified BMCC students to earn an associates degree in science at BMCC and then transfer automatically to John Jay, where they can earn a B.S. degree in forensic science.

By the time they graduate from BMCC, students will have gained a solid grounding in the basic sciences, including physics, biology, chemistry and math; it’s not till they’ve transferred to John Jay that they begin formal coursework in forensics. “What the workshop does is give them a head start—practical exposure to forensics while they’re still at BMCC,” says science Professor Lalitha Jayant, the Coordinator of the Forensic Science Program.

The six-week workshop meets from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m., four days a week. At a recent session, Professors Christine Priano and Sarah Salm reviewed the basic facts of the Actin case with their students. “What else do we know?” Priano asked.

“The ‘dressed crab’ special turned out to be fake crab meat,” volunteered a student. “There was a suspicion that Lucy was using cheaper, lower-grade fish—like pollack—especially since another diner had recently had a similar reaction.”

Priano noted that the Health Department had subsequently closed the restaurant down pending an investigation by a forensics team. “You’re the forensics team,” Priano told the students. With that, they broke up into small groups to conduct chemical analyses of the fish served to Dr. Atkin.

DNA testing on crab meat

“The process we use is called protein gel electrophoresis and involves isolating, purifying and analyzing the proteins from the restaurant food and comparing it with the protein of real crabmeat,” explains Shaneka Whittick.

Simultaneously, students were also analyzing plant DNA for the gene called GAPDH. Fellow workshop participant Ysleni Leger, added, “Initially, we were provided with the gel needed for the analysis, but we’ve since learned how to make the gel from scratch as well as to amplify DNA.”

In fact, the students learn a wide range of forensic techniques, from blood typing to fingerprint analysis. In this particular exercise the students isolated and analyzed fish proteins.

“A lot of people base their impressions of what forensic scientists do on TV shows like Law and Order CSI, says workshop participant Janet Olivia Hicks.  “But the reality is different. Forensics involves hard work and hard core science. It’s not all glamour and glitz. But it’s incredibly interesting.”

Hicks’s enthusiasm is shared by all the students in the workshop, although not all plan to pursue a career in forensics.

Jamal Roberts, who works in law enforcement, hopes that a knowledge of forensic principles and techniques will benefit him in his chosen field; environmental science major Lisa Bloodgood plans to work in the area of soil remediation, where, she says, “I’ll be able to apply what I’ve learned here—especially techniques like DNA extraction and amplification.”

Likewise, pre-med student Micha Nelson says that much of what she has learned in the workshop will be directly relevant in her work as a physician.

By the end of the day’s session, the students hadn’t yet come to any firm conclusions about what had made Dr. Actin so sick. “Ultimately, the case may wind up in court,” said Priano. “As experts, you can expect to be grilled by both the defense and prosecuting attorneys—unless, of course, Lucy decides things aren’t looking too good for her and fesses up.”

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • Students take part in a six-week summer workshop in forensic science
  • Program is part of a joint effort between BMCC and John Jay College
  • Participants analyze evidence in a fictitious — but realistic — case study

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