MTSU senior SURFs into summer forensic-science res...

MTSU senior SURFs into summer forensic-science research

An MTSU senior is SURF-ing through samples of body fluids this summer in a research project that will ultimately help her assist investigators in their quests to solve crimes.

Brooke Taylor Morgan

Brooke Taylor Morgan of Rutledge, Tennessee, an honors student who’s majoring in forensic science at MTSU, received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, or SURF, from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Her 11-week fellowship with the Applied Genetics group in the Material Measurement Laboratory at the organization’s Gaithersburg, Maryland, campus has her participating in several fascinating research projects.

With her NIST mentors, Drs. Peter Vallone and Mike Coble and Erica Butts, Morgan has been engrossed in DNA samples, data collection and more.

“Everything that this group does is exactly what I want to do as a forensic scientist,” Morgan said. “My long-term career goal is to work for the FBI as a DNA analyst. I am immersed in DNA typing and STR (short tandem repeats) profiling research here at NIST, and I am gaining valuable knowledge and experience every day that can easily be applied to my intended career.”

MTSU senior Brooke Taylor Morgan, right, works with biology professor Dr. Drew Seig in MTSU’s University Honors College Science Lab. Morgan is participating in a National Institute of Standards and Technology summer fellowship in Gaithersburg, Maryland. (MTSU photo by Andy Heidt)

Morgan’s also been working on “optimization of qPCR assays,” or, in layman’s terms, optimizing the testing procedures used in forensic laboratories when analyzing DNA samples. “qPCR” refers to “real-time” or quantitative polymearse chain reactions, which are used to amplify a minute amount of DNA.

“In the area of research, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work,” Morgan explained. “You are not constantly in the lab performing experiments. You can spend hours researching literature and preparing for the experiment, and once you are finally in the lab, all you have to do is push a button and wait for the results.

“You have to learn how to make the best of your time. While you are waiting for an experiment to complete its run, you can either waste time surfing the Internet or continue researching your topic to gain more knowledge.”

Morgan, one of the University Honors College’s Transfer Fellows, also has been an academic peer mentor to assist her fellow students as well as a housing resident assistant and is an MTSU Student Ambassador for 2014-15.

She provided the keynote address in May for the first East Tennessee Expanding Your Horizons Conference at Walters State Community College. EYH is a hands-on math and science event that encourages girls to consider careers in the sciences, math, engineering and technology.

Dr. Alicja Lanfear, the postdoctoral research assistant for MTSU’s Forensic Institute for Research and Education, and University Honors Dean John Vile told Morgan about the fellowship. Morgan competed for it with fellow MTSU students earlier this year, and Lanfear prepared her nomination form.

  “Everyone urged me to apply since I have such strong interests in a lab-based career,” Morgan said. “The NIST-SURF program seemed like the perfect opportunity to gain hands-on experience and be surrounded by some of the best scientists around!”

The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, also known as SURF, lets top students spend part of their summer working elbow to elbow with researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST, founded in 1901 and now part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is one of the nation’s oldest physical science laboratories.

It’s also one of the world’s leading research organizations and home to four Nobel Prize winners.

The SURF opportunities are open each year to students majoring in biochemistry, biological sciences, chemistry, chemical science and technology, computer science, electronics and electrical engineering, engineering, information technology, mathematics and physical sciences, and materials science, including forensic science.

For more information about the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, visit and

For more information on MTSU’s University Honors College, visit, and for details on the Forensic Institute for Research and Education, visit

— Gina E. Fann (

MTSU senior Brooke Taylor Morgan, right, poses with MTSU chemistry professor Dr. Judith Iriarte-Gross in May at the first East Tennessee Expanding Your Horizons Conference at Walters State Community College. Morgan provided the keynote address for the event. (Photo submitted)