Northeastern University

Boston, Massachusetts


The Northeastern Forensic Research Center (NFORCE) site at Northeastern University, in the educational hub of Boston, Massachusetts is one of several research sites within the Center for Advanced Research in Forensic Science (CARFS). NFORCE is fully committed to working across industry, university and government sectors to provide solutions to emerging threats that exist within our society. Emerging threats present themselves in a variety of ways including energetic materials, toxic substances, radiation exposure, DNA damage, and security breaches; all of these factors challenge our general sense of security and provide pertinent areas for forensic science research.

Such an effort takes the leadership and talents of many parties and Northeastern can meet this challenge. The formation of strong partnerships between Industry and Academia through the established NSF-I/UCRC model is an effective way of addressing these needs and accomplishing the goals of each party at the speed of business. The NFORCE site is fully committed to working with other Principal Investigators at our partner sites within CARFS as well as faculty researchers at the Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis here at Northeastern.

The Barnett Institute was established in 1973 as a center for advanced interdisciplinary research in the chemical analysis sciences. It is housed in the Department of Chemistry & Chemical Biology in the College of Science at Northeastern and had its initial beginnings in forensic science through a grant from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which later became the Office of Justice Programs. Today, the Institute is recognized internationally as one of the premier centers for cutting-edge research and advanced training in analytical chemistry for biomedical applications. Students and staff are trained to think analytically and understand the complexity of sample characterization as well as an in-depth appreciation for the goals of the applications under investigation.





Research Faculty

Dr. Adam B. Hall

Professor, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, NEU
Associate Director, Center for the Advanced Research in Forensic Science (CARFS)
Director, Core Mass Spectrometry Facility, Barnett Institute

Phone: (617) 872-9070
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Adam B. Hall is the Director of the Core Mass Spectrometry Facility within the Barnett Institute of Chemical and Biological Analysis at Northeastern University and is a board certified diplomate of the American Board of Criminalistics (D-ABC). His career in forensic science began as a practitioner with the Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory where he was a member of Crime Scene Response, Arson and Explosives, Criminalistics and Drug Analysis Units. He has
been qualified as an expert witness in numerous counties within Massachusetts where he has testified in criminal cases for both the prosecution and the defense. Prior to his current role he was a faculty member within the Biomedical Forensic Sciences Program at Boston University School of Medicine where he mentored 51 MS students and received the 2012 Educator of the Year Award. In 2013, Dr. Hall was the recipient of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Regional Award representing the Northeastern Association of Forensic Scientists. Hall is currently co-editing the 3rd edition of the Forensic Science Handbooks with Dr. Richard Saferstein, a primary textbook series for graduate level forensic science education and as a well-known professional desk reference. He
serves on the NIST – OSAC Subcommittee for Fire Debris and Explosives as the Chair of the Research and Training Task Group and as a member of the Board of Directors for the Northeastern Association of Forensic Scientists (NEAFS). Hall’s research interests and expertise include: forensic analytical chemistry and instrumental analysis for the analysis of fire debris, explosives and drugs of abuse. The application of ambient ionization techniques and the utility of chemometrics in mass spectrometry for forensic use have been recent focuses. He serves as the Associate Director of the Center for Advanced Research in
Forensic Science (CARFS) and as PI for the NSF IUCRC CARFS Research Affiliate Site at Northeastern University.


General Research Areas

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 CARFS Funded Projects

  • Metabolic Studies Utilizing ‘Liver on a Chip’ Technology: Gaining a Deeper Understanding of Opiate Adulterants through Mass Spectrometry and Chemometrics: Street quality drugs are rarely if ever pure. Nationwide, heroin ranges in purity from 30-50%, meaning that 50-70% by weight consists of adulterants and/or diluents cut into the samples to increase the weight and/or provide biological effect(s) similar to the primary drug of abuse. Often times, these cutting agents can be highly toxic as is the case with levamisole, a common cocaine cutting agent and fentanyl, a common heroin cutting agent. This project intends to develop methods for the extraction, separation and detection of metabolites of drug adulterants to generate toxicological profiles which can be evaluated by chemometric approaches. We intend to utilize existing metabolism approaches developed by Empiriko Technologies for ‘liver on a chip’ ex-vivo drug metabolism to evaluate metabolites generated from known drug adulterants. Following the method development and evaluation of metabolite profiles, the longer term goal of this overall research is to evaluate postmortem urine samples and establish drug adulterant metabolite profiles from these important forensic samples.
  • Dynamic Air Sampling and Analysis of Gasoline using CMV-DART-qTOF-MS (with Dr. Almirall, FIU): Equilibrium sampling of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from fire debris using an FIU proprietary technology, Capillary Microextractor of Volatiles (CMV) is coupled to DART-qTOF-MS to detect biomarkers of gasoline. VOCs sampled and preconcentrated on the CMV device are thermally desorbed using a DART interface coupled to qTOF-MS. Data analysis routines are used to identify the biomarkers without the need for a separation step. The CMV is composed of PDMS sorbent-coated glass microfibers with an ultra-high surface area that can adsorb volatiles when air is dynamically sampled through the device. The CMV is small (2cm x 2mm), inexpensive and very easy to use to sample and pre-concentrate sub-ng quantities of semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs) characteristic of gasoline biomarkers, from air, in less than 1 minute. The CMV is coupled to a DART source for gasoline analysis, for the first time.



Dr. Penny J. Beuning

Associate Professor, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, NEU
Associate Director, Environmental Cancer Research Program, NEU

Phone: (617) 373-2865
Fax number: 617-373-8795
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Penny J. Beuning is an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Northeastern University (NU). She joined the faculty of Northeastern University in 2006. The interests of her research group are in DNA damage tolerance, DNA replication, protein dynamics, and protein engineering. A major focus of the group is to probe the fundamental molecular basis of DNA damage recognition by specialized damage-bypass DNA polymerases using a range of protein engineering approaches. Her research on DNA damage tolerance has been recognized with a Cottrell Scholar Award, an NSF CAREER Award, an American Cancer Society Research Scholar Award, a Dreyfus Foundation New Faculty Award, and the 2015 Chemical Research in Toxicology Young Investigator Award. The Beuning research group has received more than $5 million in external funding and has mentored 21 Ph.D. students (10 current) and seven M.S. students. Prof. Beuning serves on the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement and is an elected Councilor of the American Chemical Society. Prof. Beuning has been active in efforts to enhance the recruitment and retention of groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences and she is currently on the board of the Boston chapter of Graduate Women in Science. Prof. Beuning earned a B.A. in Chemistry from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota (2000) in the field of RNA-protein interactions and RNA biochemistry. She completed postdoctoral research focused on protein-protein interactions that regulate cellular responses to DNA damage
at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

General Research Areas

  • DNA replication and DNA damage responses focused on specialized Y-family DNA-damage-bypass DNA polymerases and their interactions with components of the normal DNA replication fork. Probing global DNA damage responses.Enzyme function and protein engineering to understand and modify substrate specificity.

    Relationship between protein dynamics and function.

 CARFS Funded Projects

  • Molecular tools for the enhanced amplification/replication of forensic DNA samples: This project aims to develop DNA polymerases specialized to copy DNA that has been damaged by oxygen or certain types of environmental mutagens, such that the correct base sequence is maintained. Environmental DNA samples are often subject to damage, which inhibits PCR and other processing steps. Oxidative damage, such as 8-oxoG and hydantoins, is especially common in environmental samples and can inhibit DNA polymerases used in PCR or can lead to inaccurate DNA replication. A potential solution to this problem is to treat environmental samples with DNA repair enzymes prior to PCR. This approach has two drawbacks: if carried out prior to PCR, this step adds time and labor to the workflow and if carried out concomitantly with PCR, potentially mutagenic DNA repair intermediates are formed in the process of replication the DNA. We propose to develop DNA polymerases that can copy certain types of DNA damage accurately, guided by computational methods developed here at Northeastern that identify amino acid residues that contribute to the activity of enzymes, even when such residues may be remote from the reacting substrates. The method combines the computed chemical properties, evolutionary conservation, and information about surfaces where each residue resides to predict the likelihood that a given residue contributes to activity. These predictions will be combined with analysis of docking of damaged DNA substrates to determine polymerase residues important for copying damaged DNA. Most previous efforts to engineer DNA polymerases have been carried out by selection of desired functions from randomized libraries; in such an approach, it is generally impossible to sample the sequence space necessary to identify new functions, especially in large proteins such as DNA polymerases. Our project involves the application of computational approaches to narrow sequence space to increase greatly the likelihood of success.