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When it comes to deducing conclusions from the examination of minute traces of evidence, DeEtta “Dee” Mills, associate professor of Biology could give Sherlock Holmes a run for his money.

Mills is the director of the International Forensic Research Institute (IFRI), which serves local and national law enforcement efforts in the application of scientific principles to the administration of justice.  She is also the deputy director of the Global Forensic and Justice Center, a multidisciplinary resource that establishes FIU’s deep expertise in the arenas of forensic science, forensic services and justice administration and was recently designated a preeminent program, which recognizes those groups that enhance the university’s reputation at the national and international level.

Mills’ educational background is impressively diverse. She has Associate’s degrees in biology and chemistry, a Bachelor’s degree in cell biology, a Master’s degree in photobiology, and a Ph.D. in environmental science and public policy. She came to FIU in 2001 and was hired to  manage the Department of Biological Sciences DNA Core Facility. At the time, FIU had a forensic chemistry department, but not a forensic biology department, and she was eventually asked by Provost Kenneth G. Furton, then Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, to establish and manage the Forensic DNA Profiling Facility (FDPF) in 2004. She originally joined FIU in a non-tenure capacity, but her research, funding success, and teaching history impressed Dr. Suzanna Rose, founding Associate Provost of the Office to Advance Women, Equity & Diversity, who helped Mills become tenure-track. The change meant Mills could now mentor not only Master’s students, but Ph.D students, whose longer period of study meant deeper and broader research.

Mills has received grants from a number of entities, including the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency and the prestigious NSF ADVANCE fellowship program (the program has since shifted to awarding grants to institutions). She has two patents pending, a vacuum device for sampling and a gold nanoparticle biosensor.

Her early research focused on microbiology, studying communities of microbes breaking down hazardous wastes—a process called bioremediation. Because forensic biology is an application of molecular biology, she was able to easily use the techniques she’d honed over the years when she entered the field of forensic biology. For example, soil microbial DNA profiles can be used to provide the provenance of a soil sample. What are the forensic applications of this science? Soil samples found on the tread of a suspect’s shoe can then be matched to the soil of the crime scene, becoming important corroboration of evidence for law agencies. “We get the dirt on everyone, literally,” she laughs. “If it has DNA, you can do something with it. Forensics is just the application of science to a court of law.”

IFRI’s work also has important applications in the fields of agriculture. One of Mills’ favorite projects involved training detector dogs to sniff out a particularly devastating fungus in trees during the fungal infection’s initial stages – by the time symptoms become visible, it’s too late to save the tree.  But the early warnings provided by the canines allowed for treatment and/or removal, thus helping curb the spread of the disease to other trees. Other projects include helping Miami-Dade and Broward police with equine DNA profiling in recent horse slaughtering cases and consulting with the USDA on food adulteration cases.

Indeed, the assistance provided by IFRI is so widespread and highly sought after, one of the challenges faced by faculty and students at the Institute is how to teach scientific principles to non-scientists. Almost all of the faculty members at IFRI have testified in court as expert witnesses in their fields. “I always ask my students, ‘How do you translate science into layman’s terms so that everyone can appreciate the work? An expert witness is going to have a diverse jury, and everyone needs to understand. How do you make sure the science excites other people?’” Mills says.

Mills herself is clearly excited by science. “Science is so interesting. I like my students to think creatively. When they’re engaged, they do better.” A dedicated teacher, she encourages her students to think beyond the bench. “You don’t want a grant to end and the science to sit on the shelf. Everything should have an impact on society. Our mission is both research and training the next generation.”