From DNA to diapers: Stay-at-home mom once solved forensic mysteries
As a young mother of two, Molly Morgan’s days are focused entirely on her children. Just two years ago she had a very different life.
As a forensic scientist at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., she worked chiefly on identifying remains of soldiers killed in battle, from World War I through the Vietnam War.
After the birth of her first child, Morgan cut her lab hours to part time. In 2000, her husband’s job as chief mechanic on a corporate aircraft brought the family to Colorado.
Now the only reminders of her former life lie in newspaper clippings she’s collected in a folder.
Before her life veered sharply toward motherhood, its trajectory was aimed at science. Morgan, who grew up in Rockwood, Pa., 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa., in 1992.
“I was always science oriented. In college I liked chemistry more than biology,” she said. Forensics attracted her early on, forensics being the application of science to legal cases.
“It was probably from watching Quincy on TV,” she said. It was a show about a big-city medical examiner who gathered evidence for criminal cases based on sometimes esoteric science.
Fresh out of college, she applied for and won an internship at the Pennsylvania State Police crime lab where she was immersed in forensic science: fingerprint identification, blood and controlled substance analysis, ballistics and DNA.
DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid, is the blueprint for of life. It contains all the genetic information to replicate and maintain living organisms. It can remain intact inside bones and teeth for centuries. It is also extracted from blood and other body fluids.
“DNA fascinated me,” she said. The “alphabet” of 16,500 bits of data that make up the human gene, even if incomplete, can be used much like fingerprints to identify a person. DNA is used most commonly to fill in the pieces of a crime puzzle, or to identify remains.
She pursued the work further, earning a master’s degree in forensic science in 1994 from George Washington University in Washington D.C.
Right out of graduate school she was hired by the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Rockville, Md., where she worked until 2000.
The primary work of the lab is identification of remains from past wars, notably Vietnam, Korea and World War II. There are 2,000 Americans unaccounted for from the Vietnam conflict, over 8,000 from the Korean War and over 78,000 from World War II.
So far, DNA scientists at the lab have identified 96 remains of persons missing in the Vietnam War. They also identified victims of the Branch Davidian fire in Waco, Texas, the USAir crash near Pittsburgh and the ValuJet crash in Florida.
In 1998, Morgan made history.
From newspaper accounts, the scientists at AFDIL, including Morgan, knew there was a move afoot to disinter the remains of the Vietnam War soldier buried in the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery.
The family of a Lt. Michael Blassie was convinced they were his remains, and lobbied the government to perform DNA testing to establish identity.
Human remains come to the lab with only an identification number and are randomly assigned for analysis to keep the process as unbiased as possible. Although the staff of the lab knew the remains of the Vietnam Unknown were coming, no one knew who would get them to analyze.
As it happened, Morgan received the remains to test. Once the sample was processed and Morgan received the 10 family references with the name Blassie, she knew who she had in her hand.
In 1972, Air force pilot Lt. Michael Blassie was shot down in his A-37 aircraft over An-Loc, South Vietnam. His remains were brought to the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for identification, but at the time positive identification was ruled out.
Circumstantial evidence was found along with a few bones at the scene of the crash, among them Blassie’s dog tags and wallet. But the remains could have belonged to any Air Force or Army fighter pilot who went down in the area at that time. Although originally labeled “thought to be” Michael Blassie, the designation was removed in 1979 when the military decided the material evidence was too slim.
Morgan matched genetic sequences between Blassie’s DNA and samples taken from his mother and sister. She also traveled with the military top brass to the Blassie’s home in St. Louis to bring the official news and to explain the process of identification.
“They have been wondering all those years and they want answers,” she said.
Being able to explain the DNA testing process to Michael Blassie’s family “was the ultimate in my career,” she said.
Blassie was buried with full military honors July 11, 1998, at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery near St. Louis, close to his father, a World War II veteran.
Now Morgan’s days revolve around her children, Jake, 4, and Kara, almost 2, and her husband, Chad.
“I love this area and I love being a stay-at-home mom,” she said.
But she also admits she’s searching for a way to get back into her chosen field of DNA analysis.
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