Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Computer program could revolutionize forensic investigations

photo portrait

Colin Erdman

One might not expect a 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-pound rugby player to spend hours in a lab developing cutting-edge genetic detection techniques. But senior molecular biology major and self-described computer geek Colin Erdman is no ordinary jock.

Erdman has developed a computer program that could revolutionize forensic investigation. His program, which began as a DU Partners in Scholarship research project, can identify mitochondrial DNA strands from different individuals, making it easier to solve crimes like assaults, in which DNA from the attacker and victim may be commingled.

“I became interested in the forensics projects and basically fell in love with them,” Erdman says. But, he notes, rugby remains his “main outlet and passion.”

“I can’t sit in front of a computer all week and maintain my sanity without getting out and running around, getting tackled and tackling people once in a while,” says Erdman, who plays in flanker and lock positions and serves as secretary of DU’s club rugby team. 

“The two polar opposites that are intensive research and rugby are really what provide a balance.”

Erdman transferred to DU from a California junior college to take advantage of DU’s Learning Effectiveness Program (LEP). “LEP was great for helping me keep my life organized with so much going on,” says Erdman, who has attention deficient disorder and a math learning disability.

But those disabilities don’t stop Erdman whatsoever, says biology Associate Professor Phil Danielson (PhD ’96), who oversees Erdman’s research.

“I’m a big believer in seeing what you can do in terms of performance,” Danielson says. “And he performed really, really well.” 

Other scientists think so, too. The life-sciences company Transgenomic is interested in Erdman’s program, and by next summer, forensic scientists should be able to use his software to identify individual contributors in mixed mitochondrial DNA samples.

“Once you meet him and give him the chance to show you what he can do, he does amazing work,” Danielson says. “He has a huge amount of ability.”

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