Please tell us about yourself

Swaminathan received his bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Anna University in India. He is working on this project under the guidance of Desmond Lun, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science at Rutgers–Camden, who encouraged Swaminathan to apply for the fellowship

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Student Receives Fellowship to Advance DNA Research

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Harish Swaminathan hadn’t even completed his bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Anna University in his native India before deciding he would cross the Atlantic Ocean to earn his master’s degree in the United States, which Harish says is “the leading country in the world in graduate research.”  Using the Internet to search the different options available to him, Harish stumbled upon Rutgers-Camden.  He knew he was interested in doing experimental work on biological models and wanted to be on the cutting edge of science research, and so the campus’ computational and integrative biology program was particularly appealing to him.  Rutgers-Camden ended up on his short list of schools he hoped to attend. “There is so much going on here at Rutgers–Camden and in the Center for Computational and Integrative Biology,” Swaminathan says. “It has provided me with a unique opportunity to be a part of cutting-edge research.”

How was the admission experience?

Harish accepted Rutgers-Camden’s offer of admission.  Before he even started the program, Harish received an email from Dr. Desmond Lun, Associate Professor of Computer Science, who wanted to offer some words of welcome and to ask Harish if he had any interest in furthering his education and pursuing a doctoral degree in computational and integrative biology.  “The more I learned about Dr. Lun’s research, the more intrigued I became, and so I decided to give it a shot,” Harish says.

After making the decision to attend Rutgers-Camden, Harish left India for the United States.  He found an apartment in Philadelphia and settled in to his new life as a Rutgers-Camden graduate student.  He immediately found the campus’ atmosphere very welcoming and felt at ease, knowing he made the right choice.  His first semester, he took Essentials of Computer Science I with Dr. Sunil Shende, Associate Professor of Computer Science, a class that greatly increased his interest in coding.  “That class is crucial to the work that I do.  It was really beneficial and I learned a lot.”

Please tell us about your work

Now in his third year at Rutgers-Camden, Harish is currently working with Dr. Lun on multiple projects, including one called “Estimating the number of contributors to a DNA sample.”

Harish has been awarded a prestigious graduate research fellowship from the National Institute of Justice to fund his project, “Computational Methods for the Interpretation of Forensic DNA Samples.”

Harish Swaminathan, a doctoral student studying computational and integrative biology at Rutgers University–Camden, has been awarded a prestigious graduate research fellowship from the National Institute of Justice.
 The award program provides funding for research on crime, violence, and other criminal justice-related topics to accredited universities that support graduate study leading to research-based doctoral degrees. Swaminathan received $34,999.

“I’m very excited and honored to be selected for this award and to participate in research that will have a significant impact on forensic science,” says Swaminathan, a Philadelphia resident.

Swaminathan’s research is focused on finding a way to more accurately analyze DNA evidence at a crime scene. DNA can be found in human cells from blood, hair, and skin. When a forensic analyst takes a DNA sample from an object, the DNA from everyone who had contact with the object is potentially in the sample.

“The problem that forensic analysts encounter with DNA samples is that in some cases, they are not pristine,” Swaminathan says.

In other words, the clear-cut DNA analysis that leads to a conviction on TV and in the movies isn’t exactly how it happens in the real world.

“It isn’t that simple,” the Rutgers–Camden Ph.D. candidate explains. “Analysts get a sample that includes a mixture of DNA from several people and those kinds of samples — if they contain DNA from three or four people — can be pretty hard to interpret. There is a lot of uncertainty. My work tries to better determine the likelihood a specific DNA match occurs.”

Swaminathan hopes an algorithm he develops more accurately assesses the weight of the DNA evidence.

“The idea is to better distinguish one DNA sample from all of the other ‘noise’ in the sample,” he says. “The ultimate aim is to apply this new method into standard practice.”

What do you do other than research?

In addition to working on his research, this past semester Harish supervised the research of an undergraduate for the first time.  He credits Dr. Lun and Dr. Benedetto Piccoli, Professor of Mathematical Science and Joseph and Loretta Lopez Chair in Mathematics, with helping him to learn how to advise his student, an experience he calls “challenging but rewarding.”

What are your future plans?

Currently, Harish plans on graduating in May 2015 and would like to stay in the United States as a post-doctoral student, conducting research in forensics.  For now, however, Harish is content at Rutgers-Camden.  He’s full of admiration for his computational and integrative biology colleagues, calling them “extremely clever” and praising their research.  “I’ve made a lot of friends here,” Harish says.  “It’s a great environment for performing scientific research.”  Truly, though Harish is a long way from India, he’s right at home here at Rutgers-Camden.