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Research solves problems from Mars to crime scenes

Jeffrey Schweitzer has found oil nearly two miles under the earth and will help explore Mars in 2001. But right now he's hoping to help catch some criminals.

Schweitzer is a research professor who just joined the department of physics and who will be doing research in nuclear astrophysics. He also has 12 patents and is part of a team of scientists who are working with the National Institute of Justice to apply the technology used by NASA in space exploration to fight crime.

One of Schweitzer's partners in this effort will be Dr. Henry Lee, director of the Connecticut State Police Crime Laboratory and renowned forensic investigator who gained international fame as an expert witness in the O.J. Simpson case. Lee's lab is one of two in the nation that have been chosen as initial test sites for a new program designed to integrate appropriate NASA technology into criminal investigations.

"One of NASA's goals has always been to bring the positive benefits of the science developed for space exploration back to earth," Schweitzer says. "I've helped create a lot of instruments that can be just as useful at a crime scene as they are in planetary exploration."

Lighter, smaller
Schweitzer has been using his expertise in creating and refining instrumentation for more than 20 years. He specializes in producing instruments that use neutron scattering and reactions, gamma rays, and x-ray fluorescence. All are excellent for gathering information about planets, meteorites, and comets. But Schweitzer actually began using the technology for something much more earth-bound: oil.

Schweitzer spent 22 years working for Schlumberger, an international firm that creates equipment used to explore for oil, gas, and other fossil fuels. It was with this company that Schweitzer helped develop an innovative sensing device that emitted neutrons, which react differently to the density of oil, water, or gas. The instrument Schweitzer developed was much smaller than previous exploratory sensors and could fit inside a producing well's pipes, eliminating the need to pull out and replace miles of pipes to make the needed measurements. It was also much more sensitive than the technology it replaced.

"It got the job done better, in one-tenth of the time and at one-fiftieth of the cost," he says.

The sensor has since become a standard piece of equipment in the industry.

Schweitzer's talent for making instruments smaller and lighter led him to an association with NASA and the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. He is involved with the current NEAR (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) mission, which sent back dramatic photographs of the asteroid Mathilde on June 27, as well as data on the asteroid's size. The probe will go on to a rendezvous with the asteroid Eros in February 1999, where it will enter orbit and transmit data, including information about the asteroid's composition and radioactivity, until February 2000.

Schweitzer is also involved with other satellite projects that will include trips to Mars and Mercury, missions under NASA's New Millennium Program that will involve landing a probe on a comet.

FBI calling
It was Schweitzer's work with NASA that led him to his new venture in forensic science. It began three years ago when a NASA colleague, Jack Trombka, got a call from the FBI. The bureau wondered if the same technology used to analyze heavenly bodies could be directed at something more mundane: concrete.

"They were investigating a building contractor in the U.S. Virgin Islands who was supposed to have used fresh water in the concrete foundation they poured," Schweitzer says. "The building was done and the FBI wanted us to analyze the concrete to see if the contractor had instead used sea water or brackish water."

There was a catch, however. The FBI wanted the analysis done without taking any samples of the concrete.

Schweitzer and Trombka were excited about the possibilities.

"It was just a matter of detecting the amount of chlorine content in the concrete," Schweitzer says. "We were sure this could be done by scattering neutrons through the concrete."

The two men began designing such an instrument. Meanwhile, the FBI approached the building contractor.

"When they told the builder they had NASA scientists working on a scanner for the concrete, he confessed immediately that he hadn't used fresh water," Schweitzer says. "We never even got to build our instrument."

But the seed of what these scientists could do was planted. In March 1997, The National Institute of Justice convened a conference on the subject. Representatives from the FBI, Secret Service, Customs, and several state police crime labs attended. The decision was made to explore what the NASA technology could bring to criminal investigations. In August, the forensic labs in Virginia and Connecticut were selected as alpha sites for proposals and testing of new equipment.

"The idea will be to make everything standardized and easily transferable," Schweitzer says. "That way, methods and equipment used in Connecticut can readily be transferred to any other state. This is important for the investigative process and later on in court when evidence is being presented."

Schweitzer also says that while x-ray fluorescence and gamma ray detection can be used to help with investigations of gunshots, explosives, and arson, some of the other suggestions coming out of the conference were decidedly low-tech.

"One very good suggestion was to use live video transmissions from the crime scene," he says. "Realistically, someone like Dr. Lee can only visit one crime scene a night. But with video transmission, he can sit at a central location and direct investigations at multiple crime scenes simultaneously. These cameras can be fitted with night vision or infrared lenses as well."

Hospitals and airports
Schweitzer is excited about the possibilities of creating instruments for crime scene investigations. But he is also bringing his lighter, smaller, more sensitive technology into other new arenas.

"One of the detectors I've developed has been shown to bring about dramatic improvements in the resolutions with PET scans, which are a medical imaging system," he says.

This work has led a company that specializes in developing imaging technology for surgical procedures to consider moving to Connecticut to partner with Schweitzer on developing new instrumentation.

Schweitzer is also working with a colleague to improve the security systems used at airports to scan cargo containers.

"This seems to satisfy one of those unwritten laws about science, which is once you start some research you never know where it may lead," Schweitzer says. "I never thought my work would have so many applications. You just start out to solve a problem, usually a very specific problem, in my case, finding oil. Next thing you know, you're involved with space travel and solving crimes and all these other things. It really is quite rewarding and exciting. I think it's been all a scientist could ask for..

David Pesci