GSBS student trains forensic workers in war-ravaged Angola

April 17, 2013

Pam Marshall (center) in Angola

Training forensics workers, Pam Marshall contributes toward a healthier global community

Pam Marshall faced a tough decision last fall: train staff in one of the world’s most dangerous cities to run a forensic DNA lab, or concentrate on her PhD at UNT Health Science Center.

She took the risk. Traveling alone to Luanda, Angola, Africa, on her first international flight, she arrived to find her workplace circled with barbed wire in a city still largely lawless after years of civil war.

She found the DNA lab well equipped and the technicians well trained. But most police officers do not know how to collect DNA evidence. Even if they did, Angola doesn’t have a database of DNA profiles with which to determine the statistical significance of their analyses. These capabilities are crucial in a city that averages as many as 20 sexual assaults, several murders and countless burglaries per day.

"The one day that still makes me cry is the day I helped medical doctors learn how to do rape examinations," she said.

Twelve sexual assault victims, the oldest 18 and the youngest 11, were waiting. One was carrying her father’s baby. The physician told the young woman she shouldn’t file a complaint against her father, however, because he was the family breadwinner.

Even minimal safeguards weren’t taken during the physical examination of the victims. "There was no pregnancy information given, no HIV testing, no STD awareness. And the physicians didn’t realize they could collect evidence up to five days after the assault."

She knew then that she’d made the right decision: "I wanted to make Luanda a safer place for victims of sexual assault."

The country still has many wounds to heal.

"You can still see the scars of this ravaged place," she said, "windows broken, bullet holes, graffiti as art and the lined faces of those old enough to know the difference between war and peace.

"You see people on the streets selling peanuts, toilet paper – anything they can for just a few kwanza, less than a dollar. And yet, they are grinning ear to ear. They are happy. They don’t realize how little they have and are relieved not to be at war. In the United States, we complain if we don’t have the latest cell phone – about a lot of things that don’t matter."

The lab technicians she trained "were so motivated to learn and so excited to get a little of the knowledge I have. They didn’t realize they already had the knowledge and only needed experience."

Marshall earned master’s degrees in forensic genetics and biochemistry from UNTHSC’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences (GSBS) in 2002, then launched a career that included four years as a forensic scientist with the Maryland State Police.

In 2008 she returned to the GSBS Forensic and Investigative Genetics Program for a doctorate and as a graduate teaching assistant. "The instructors here are the people who changed genetic forensics technology and are still changing technology," Marshall says. "Future changes will be based on their research. We are leading the way."

Inspired by the "family" feel at UNTHSC, she is already giving back by heading the GSBS Alumni Association.

Her major professor told her about the opportunity to work in Angola, and Marshall is glad she chose the more challenging option. Not only did she make a big difference in a dangerous city, but she befriended a team working desperately to make Luanda safer.

"I told them they’ll always have my support, they can always contact me, and I will always do what I can do to help them solve crimes and help their country."

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