A profile of Rhonda Roby, a forensic scientist who has identified the bodies of victims of 9/11, victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Vietnam and Korean War MIAs, bodies of the Romanov family, victims buried in Chilean mass graves, and more:

Standing there in the middle of the smoking apocalypse of the Twin Towers, she pushed aside emotion and forced the scientist part of her brain to click. ‘I kept thinking, “These people are walking on my crime scene.”’ She checks herself. “’Well, not my crime scene, but the crime scene. Of course, I wanted to identify as many remains as possible.’

While firemen and policemen all around her desperately searched for signs of life, Roby was doing math. At the time, she was the forensic manager for Applied Biosystems, a private biotech company. She stepped into the scene at 9/11 as one of the world’s leading experts in mitochondrial DNA, with hard-core experience identifying victims of mass disasters from tiny fragments of bone. There were thousands of dead. It would be necessary to sequence about 1,000 bases of DNA information on each sample of human remains, the painstaking process required to order the building blocks of a person’s unique DNA.

In the end, Roby led a team that processed 21,000 DNA samples dug from the rubble of the World Trade Center. She will go down in history as one of the scientists who rushed to Ground Zero, including superstar biologist Craig Venter, famous for his work deciphering the human genetic code. Venter, instrumental in tapping her expertise for 9/11, became a friend through the experience.

“Naming the Dead at Ground Zero.” — Julia Heaberlin, D Magazine

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