Speaker

Elena Zavala

PhD Student, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

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Speaker

Elena Zavala

PhD Student, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Elena Zavala has a BSc in Biochemistry and BA in Music from Santa Clara University. She worked as a research assistant evaluating methods for the identification of cotton pyrolysis products at the forensic microscopy consulting firm Cwiklik & Associates before serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Burkina Faso.  She then worked for Thermo Fisher as a chemist in manufacturing on the Ion Torrent PGM and Proton sequencing platforms before deciding to go back to school to pursue her interests in forensic science.

During the completion of her Masters in Forensic Science in Dr. Mitchell M. Hollands group at the Pennsylvania State University, Elena focused on testing the sensitivity of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA MPS/NGS kits for degraded samples. She was awarded the Carol De Forest grant in 2016 to help fund her research and was highlighted in WPSU’s Women in Science Profiles.

To learn more about the methods needed to work with challenging samples, Elena decided to pursue a PhD in Dr. Matthias Meyer’s group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. During her studies, she has used ancient DNA recovered from skeletal material and sediments from 30,000 to >300,000 years old to investigate evolutionary genetics and reconstruct the occupational histories of Neandertals, Denisovans, ancient humans and other mammals. Her first PhD paper “Pleistocene sediment DNA reveals hominin and faunal turnovers at Denisova Cave” was recently published in Nature. During her studies she has maintained her interest in forensic science, working to identifying tools that could be helpful for challenging human identification cases. She has been testing the application of these tools in collaboration with the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System’s Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFMES-AFDIL) and is looking forward to sharing the results with the forensic science community.