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spartan crime fighters

Spartans fight crime on multiple fronts and in extraordinary ways.

As researchers, investigators, advocates, teachers, mentors, scientists and engineers, they battle illegal animal trade in Africa, work to prevent sexual assault in communities across the United States, analyze crime scenes and curb urban youth violence.

These seven Spartan crime fighters have partnered with some of the top minds and agencies in crime prevention, from the FBI and the Department of Justice to the U.S. military and foreign governments. Committed to the common good, they dedicate themselves to research that strives for justice and seeks to make the world a better place.

Entomologist and osteopathic medical specialist Eric Benbow uses his scientific expertise with bugs and bacteria to help solve murders.

A crime scene offers much more than meets the eye. A dead human body presents a wealth of information in microscopic form—an entire microbial community living on or near it that can aid investigators in solving crimes and bringing justice.

“It’s not just the microbes, it’s all of the organisms—the insects that colonize a corpse, the coyotes that scavenge it, the soil itself, the arthropods and everything else that interacts with a human body as it decomposes,” says Benbow, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Entomology and the Department of Osteopathic Medical Specialties. “We want to understand the entire community of death—or what we have recently coined the ‘necrobiome.’”

Through Benbow’s study of the ecological processes of death, MSU became the first university to work directly with medical examiners in the collection of human microbiome information at the scene of death or during autopsy. Partnerships with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office have allowed Benbow to aid death-scene investigators in finding details that may be crucial to an investigation, including location and time frame of death.

“This is a process that strives to achieve truth and justice when death presents itself to the unfortunate person, family or community that must endure it,” he says. “I rest hoping that my role in this process can bring peace and closure to those individuals.”

Meredith Gore is working at the intersection of wildlife conservation and criminology to improve the effectiveness of environmental governance and reduce illegal wildlife exploitation.

Her research has taken her around the globe, but part of what motivates Gore hits close to home.

“My children might grow up in a world without wild African elephants and rhinoceroses, and that’s a tragedy,” says Gore, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and the School of Criminal Justice.

The vast impact and reach of natural-resource exploitation and illegal wildlife trade is often overlooked, and through her work Gore hopes to create a bridge between science and policy that helps combat the growing issue. Controlled by dangerous crime syndicates, wildlife trafficking is much like that of drugs or weapons.

“The magnitude and frequency of illegal wildlife trading is exploding—it’s astronomical,” she says. “It’s the fifth most profitable illicit trade in the world. Some terrorist organizations are funding activities through the illegal ivory trade, and both people and wildlife are suffering from the collateral impact.”

Gore’s research has taken her on multiple trips to Madagascar, where she has sought to understand the alarming decline and illegal exploitation of natural resources in a country that is considered one of the richest in biodiversity in the world.

“I’m interested in understanding how natural-resource declines serve as a cause and a consequence of crime,” she says. “MSU is the only school in the world offering a graduate certificate in conservation criminology.”

Gore’s work is highly interdisciplinary and involves collaborative approaches to combating wildlife trafficking through partnerships with airline companies, the U.S. military, nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups.

“Wildlife crime is a complicated and unique issue,” she says. “My lab is working all over the world examining why and how it occurs to help develop effective and efficient solutions.”

Rebecca Campbell is turning her research on sexual assault into policy reform at the local, state and national levels.

Sexual assault is a societal problem that reaches every community, every college campus and every corner of the country.

“It really is a national problem,” says Campbell, a professor in the Department of Psychology whose research focuses on community psychology and program evaluation. But MSU is known for tackling real-world problems, and our research can transform lives within our own campus community and across the country.”

Campbell’s work focuses on violence against women, specifically sexual assault, and how the legal, medical and mental-health systems respond to the needs of rape survivors. She recently has been honored by the American Psychological Association, End Violence Against Women International and the Society for Community Research and Action for her support of sexual assault victims as a researcher, advocate and volunteer.

But her proudest achievement is one that is transforming research into practice.

“I’m most proud of our work on untested sexual assault kits in Detroit,” says Campbell. “In this project, we’ve been able to create an evidence-based practice and share it with many communities throughout the United States.”

As Campbell uses her research in advocacy for legislative reform on behalf of sexual assault victims, she has an eye on future research that is geared toward prevention.

“We’re looking into precursor crimes—the early warnings in a criminal history—and what these can tell us about an individual’s propensity for committing an act of sexual violence,” she says. “From this we hope to form new criminal-justice policy and prevent these rapes from happening in the first place.”

Carl S. Taylor has conducted extensive field research in Detroit, Flint and Pontiac that has gained him a national reputation as an expert in youth culture, gangs and reducing violence involving American youth.

A central theme in Taylor’s research, teaching, outreach and advocacy in Detroit: hope.

“I absolutely see hope in Detroit. If you don’t have hope, you have nothing,” says Taylor, a professor in the Department of Sociology, senior fellow in University Outreach and Engagement and an affiliate of the Global Urban Studies Program. He is also a faculty member in MSU’s Animal Studies program, where he has conducted seminars on the social problem of dogfighting.

Taylor, who grew up in Detroit, has witnessed the city’s fall from prominence and hopes to see it rise again in a way that benefits all Detroiters.

“Detroit is becoming a positive example of a comeback—it has made a tremendous turnaround—but it needs to extend into the neighborhoods,” he says. “We cannot lose sight of this. The mentality that only the strong will survive in Detroit is a mistake. It abandons entire segments of society.”

Taylor believes that lasting change will require the city’s resurgence to be comprehensive and focused not only on midtown, where the crime rate has dropped more than 60 percent and businesses are thriving, but also on other neighborhoods that continue to struggle.

“It’s painful—it’s like two different worlds,” says Taylor. “We’re having new approaches to old problems, but we need to examine how the new can benefit the old.“

Taylor’s multidisciplinary research as an ethnographer, ecologist and criminologist has led him to become an advocate for investing in human capital, an early commitment to strengthening a community’s relationship with its youth.

“It starts with young people, and public education is critical,” says Taylor, who advocates for greater political attention to poverty and mass incarceration. “The land-grant spirit meant to get out and help the common man. It did not stop at the farm, so why shouldn’t it extend into the urban communities?

“I have something to give. I came from this community, I went to MSU and then came back to this community. Detroit has been my lab for 40 years.”

Thomas Holt’s research focuses on computer hacking, malware and the role of the Internet in facilitating crime.

As the Internet has grown to become an increasingly prevalent part of daily life, cybercriminals have continued to find new and innovative ways to exploit their victims. In wide-ranging research covering cyber bullying, credit card fraud, data breaches, sex trafficking, software piracy, computer hacking and more, Thomas Holt is tackling the problem of cybercrime from almost every angle.

“Cybercrime is a truly global problem,” says Holt, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice.

Recent research from computer security firms suggest that the cost of cybercrime globally may exceed $445 billion each year, affecting more than 800 million people worldwide.

“Not only do businesses suffer, but so do consumers through the costs of security tools, replacement computers and devices and losses due to identity theft,” Holt says.

Holt increasingly is focused on a growing threat in cyber security, one that has potentially serious national-security implications: cyber terrorism. His research examines the technological proficiency of radical extremist movements in the United States and compares their competence to that of international terrorists.

“We’re trying to understand to what extent ideology relates to technology use,” he says. “We’re looking not only to recognize how technology affects terror activities online and offline but also to determine the likelihood that these groups will engage in it.”

Through studying the technology proficiency of these groups, Holt has gained some insights into their tactics and abilities. He has found international terrorists tend to be more interested in cyber attacks and social media and are generally more technologically fluent than their domestic extremist counterparts in the United States.

“Our next step is understanding how this may lead to violent behavior in the real world,” says Holt, who hopes to help law enforcement agencies prevent cyber crime and cyber terrorism. “If we understand the strategy and networks of these groups and see what their long-term interests are, we can understand what they’re doing and reduce the risks of attack.”

Anil Jain’s research focuses on biometric recognition, computer vision and pattern recognition.

One of the world’s foremost authorities in biometric recognition, Anil Jain has shaped the field of fingerprint recognition with his groundbreaking research.

“Our work in fingerprints at MSU started almost 25 years ago and has resulted in new approaches to fingerprint image enhancement, feature extraction and matching,” says Jain, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering who leads MSU’s Biometrics Research Laboratory and was among the first 17 appointees to the Forensic Science Standards Board named by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Jain’s work in the development of fingerprint-matching technology led to the creation of novel three-dimensional printed models of human fingerprints that have significantly supported law enforcement and legal efforts.

“I’m very proud of our work in addressing two of the most fundamental premises of fingerprint recognition: Are fingerprints unique? Do fingerprints persist over time?” he says. “We were the first to address these two problems utilizing formal statistical models.”

As proof of the successful application of Jain’s research to law-enforcement fieldwork, major companies dealing with crime-fighting tools have licensed technology produced from his laboratory research for commercialization. He shares the credit for this success with the graduate students and postdocs in his lab.

“It is really satisfying for us to see our projects migrate from the lab to the field,” Jain says.

In addition to fingerprints, Jain’s research has produced developments in face, tattoo, palm print and ballistic matching technologies relevant to forensics. But his lab’s work also reaches beyond the field of criminal justice and into applications such as mobile-phone security, access control and large-scale national ID programs.

“One of the most exciting projects we are working on currently is to devise ways to capture fingerprints of very young subjects—newborns, infants, and toddlers—for the purpose of vaccination tracking in some of the most impoverished regions of the world,” says Jain. “Our effort is the first systematic study to capture longitudinal fingerprint data of such young subjects.”

David Foran is a recognized expert in DNA identification whose work informs criminal investigations. With Foran’s research comes an element of mystery, as it looks to solve some of the most elusive and crucial questions in criminal investigations.

“The focus of our work is identification,” says Foran, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice and the director of the Forensic Science program. “When a piece of bone comes in, we ask, ‘Is it a discarded food item or is it human?’ When a spent cartridge comes back, we ask, ‘Who fired it?’”

Foran has worked to identify DNA from improvised explosive devices, isolate DNA from any variety of tissue and body fluid and provide genetic identification differentiating human remains from other species. Frequently, his expertise is called for in court, and both prosecutors and defense attorneys in multiple states have sought his expert testimony.

“My job is to help the trier of fact understand complicated scientific evidence,” he says. “It’s teaching, just in a very different environment.”

In his research, Foran has examined DNA identification from angles not previously explored. In a past study, he found that testing the fabric of a backpack that had been blown up by a pipe bomb inside had a higher success rate in positive DNA identification than testing the fragments of the bomb.

“We batted a thousand in that study; every destroyed backpack was correctly associated with its wearer,” says Foran. “This type of research can change the way the investigators look at things. They may focus on other pieces of evidence if they know they’re much more likely to produce a positive DNA-based identification.”

Foran’s lab is currently exploring new methods for recovering and analyzing DNA from spent cartridge casings, which are ejected from a firearm and are often found at the scene of a violent crime.

“It isn’t easy, and the crime labs have pretty much given up testing casings, even though they may be the prime evidence in a shooting,” he says. “Our job is to creatively test every variable available and try to make the impossible possible.”

In another ongoing study, Foran’s research team is using the bacterial makeup of soil to act as a “fingerprint” of that soil’s origin.

“Soil is common forensic evidence, be it on a shoe, tire or shovel,” he says. “If we can show with statistical certainty that the soil on a suspect’s jeans came from the field where a clandestine burial was discovered, well, case closed.”