The Development of a University Educational Program in Forensic/Investigative Genetic Genealogy to Meet Industry Needs

Today’s blog is written by guest blogger Claire L. Glynn, Ph.D., Associate Professor & Founding Director of the Graduate Certificate in Forensic Genetic Genealogy, University of New Haven, Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, Department of Forensic Science, West Haven, Connecticut. Reposted from The ISHI Report with permission.


The Need

In the early 1970s, university-level degrees in forensic science began emerging throughout the United States and internationally. Over five decades later there is an abundance of associate, bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees offered in forensic science, with some specializing or focused on the major subdisciplines, e.g. forensic biology/DNA, forensic chemistry, etc. Within the last decade, a new credential has emerged in higher education with the rapid rise in the demand for, and offering of, what are termed “micro-credentials”, e.g. certificate programs, intensive courses, and digital badges, etc¹,². Micro-credentials provide students with opportunities to boost their skillset in a specialized area, within a shortened time frame, and require significantly fewer credits of coursework when compared to bachelor’s or master’s degree programs. Many universities now offer “stackable credentials”, such as multiple certificates in related and complementary fields that, when combined, constitute an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. Obtaining a single certificate however has become a popular choice, particularly for those already working in their chosen career. Certificates provide opportunities for professionals to add to their skill set and broaden their education, in perhaps a new sub-discipline within their field, and perhaps was not available or in existence when they were completing their undergraduate/graduate programs. Many universities now offer both undergraduate and graduate certificate programs in a broad range of disciplines, with some in specialized forensic and criminal justice topics. Many working professionals don’t have the time, desire, financial capability, or necessity to complete another full degree. Certificates however provide coherent programs of study in specialized areas, in a much-reduced time frame and at a lower cost. They provide working professionals with the ability to learn new skills, which they can then apply to their current position, pursue advancement in their career, or seek a new position. Furthermore, with advances in technology, and society’s increasing comfort with online learning, especially in the last two years, making certificate programs and micro-credentials available online opens the opportunity to a broader spectrum of prospective students who may have otherwise been restricted due to geographic location, employment, or family circumstances. In addition, creating asynchronous models of learning, allows a student to be the master of their own schedule, and eliminates issues for students in different time zones. It is important to note that a certificate is not a degree, nor is it “certification”. Rather, it is a focused set of prescribed courses that, when completed, demonstrates competence in a coherent academic specialty. Put simply, a certificate is evidence of education, while certification is evidence of passing an exam or meeting industry standards, and are typically issued by national organizations, not by universities, e.g. the American Board of Criminalistics (ABC) certification.


When creating and maintaining higher education programs in forensic science in the U.S., we have a prescribed “rule book” to work from which ensures that sufficient rigor and standards are adhered to, with the ultimate goal of producing workforce-ready graduates. In 2002, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) established an official standing committee, the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), which began accrediting forensic science programs in 2004. As of 2019, there are 50 FEPAC-accredited programs in the United States and one in Canada³. The mission of FEPAC, as stated on their website, is “to maintain and enhance the quality of forensic science education through formal evaluation and recognition of college-level academic programs that lead to a baccalaureate or graduate degree.” As any Director/Chair of a FEPAC-accredited program will know, the evaluation process for new programs and the renewal of existing accredited programs is no easy task and requires rigorous formal review, self-evaluation, and continual improvement. This ensures that students are receiving the highest quality education in the core competencies required to meet the ever-evolving development of knowledge in the forensic science field, and importantly, meets the demands and requisites for employment in operational casework laboratories. FEPAC provides a framework for the development and evaluation of forensic science programs (both baccalaureate and master’s degrees) and includes guidance on the curriculum, requisite coursework, and core competencies that programs must contain. When new subdisciplines emerge within the forensic sciences and criminal justice fields, however, there exists no “rulebook” from which to build out the necessary curriculum and core competencies, as they are only just being realized and developed.


Since its inception into criminal investigations in early 2018⁴, Forensic/Investigative Genetic Genealogy has emerged as a novel subdiscipline and become an added tool in the arsenal of forensic practitioners and investigators alike. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) issued an interim policy for its use by Department agencies⁵, and in the same year the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods (SWGDAM) convened an Investigative Genetic Genealogy Working Group (IGG WG) to review and report on its use in forensic casework⁶. It is important to note that the terms “Forensic Genetic Genealogy (FGG)” and “Investigative Genetic Genealogy (IGG)” have both been widely and interchangeably used in the last four years, and there are equally plausible arguments for the use of each one. Until a consensus on the nomenclature is reached across all stakeholders in the industry, however, and for the purposes of this article, the author has combined both terms into one i.e. Forensic Investigative Genetic Genealogy, herein referred to as FIGG. Combining them highlights and reinforces the fact that this technique utilizes both forensic and investigative processes and it is hoped this satisfies all interested stakeholders.


Due to the rapid development and implementation of FIGG into criminal investigations across the US⁷,⁸, and some internationally⁹, it became clear that there was not only a need, but a demand, for coherent instructional education in this new subdiscipline. The use of FIGG did not appear as if by magic. There were professional genealogists/investigators who had the foresight to apply genetic genealogy tools to criminal/forensic investigations e.g. Unidentified Human Remains (UHR) cases and suspect cases (i.e. violent crimes of homicide and sexual assault). Some professional genealogists possess advanced degrees in various disciplines, while some have developed their genetic genealogy knowledge on their own through self-learning. The task of self-learning through short courses, webinars, YouTube videos, seminars, and workshops can be challenging, albeit there are some excellent repositories of information in the broader genealogy community e.g. the International Society of Genetic Genealogy (ISOGG) Wiki. It can be difficult however to independently navigate what skills and core competencies are essential, and what tools and standards will make your research/investigation more efficient and accurate. An intensive workshop or short course focused on FIGG can certainly provide useful guidance and training in the fundamentals of the workflow. A comprehensive and structured university program however offers a depth and breadth of education on the many components that comprise the whole process, including the many intricacies and complexities that can exist. Many advise those who wish to gain experience in FIGG to first volunteer and work on adoption and unknown parentage cases/investigations. This is undoubtedly a valuable experience to develop and hone your skills and refine your knowledge. There are many people though, who have a desire and need for coherent programs of study that deliver a structured educational model containing the required curriculum, requisite coursework, and core competencies that are necessary to become skilled in FIGG.


The Development

In mid-2019, the University of New Haven began to develop proposals to create graduate-level coursework to deliver instructional training and education in FIGG. Third-level institutions across the US and internationally have varying policies and procedures written into their operating guidelines and handbooks for the development of new programs. The policy that exists at the University of New Haven is to first begin by preparing a feasibility study to assess new program proposals which is presented to the University administration and University Curriculum Committee (UCC). This feasibility review exists to provide a brief overview of the proposed program, offering preliminary information about the rationale, potential market, anticipated financial impact, needs for personnel and other resources, and relation to the university and college missions and strategic plans. It was clear there was significant rationale and demand for a graduate-level certificate program in FIGG as none existed anywhere in the world. The Association of Genealogy Educators and Schools (AGES) collates a list of genealogy-related courses and programs at institutes, colleges, and universities across the world. None however focus on genetic genealogy and its application to law enforcement/forensic investigations.

At the University of New Haven, the forensic science and criminal justice programs are the university’s flagship programs and are internationally recognized. Recently, named the forensic science program at the University of New Haven the #1 in the United States for 2022. The B.S in Forensic Science is also the largest FEPAC-accredited program and is one of the longest-running programs in the United States. Graduates from both the B.S. and M.S. in forensic science have been employed in crime labs in every state across the country, and some internationally. Some graduates/alumni inquired if the university was offering or planning to develop coursework or training in FIGG, as they were beginning to implement it in the agencies they work for. Therefore, it was clear there was an opportunity to meet industry needs by developing an educational program focused on FIGG. It was also clear that this aligns with the missions and strategic plans of the University of New Haven and the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, which is to strive to meet emergent challenges and provide unique educational opportunities to the industry. Throughout the University of New Haven’s hundred-year history, it has always provided market-responsive education to meet the workforce needs of the world. This is evidenced by the university establishing the second graduate program in National Security within the U.S immediately after 9/11, and the continual development of new programs in niche specialized fields within the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences.


Since 2018, FIGG has become an increasingly popular topic among forensic practitioners and law enforcement professionals, with many presentations on the topic at all the major conferences and symposiums. In addition, general members of the public who have a keen interest in genealogy, some with extensive expertise and some who consider themselves amateur hobbyists, have become drawn to this new application of using genetic genealogy in criminal investigations. Therefore, it was clear there was market potential for prospective students from a variety of different areas. Following feasibility review and the green light from the university administration to go ahead with the development of a detailed curriculum proposal, an analysis was performed of the key fundamental elements that are involved in a FIGG investigation. No other educational program of its kind exists and therefore it was essential to start from scratch and build out the curriculum, drawing on the faculty’s existing knowledge and expertise in the area, including educational standards that already exist independently in the areas of forensic biology/DNA analysis, genetic genealogy, and genealogical research using documentary evidence. This helped form the foundation for the design of the curriculum, with the ultimate goal of achieving the program’s objectives, which is to educate and train students in the core competencies that are involved in the application of genetic genealogy to forensic/law enforcement investigations.


The Curriculum

In the development of the curriculum, it was deemed essential, to begin with introductory coursework that covers the current capabilities and the methods involved in the processing of biological evidence in a forensic investigation, both at the crime scene and the crime lab. This first introductory course in the Fundamentals of Forensic Biological Evidence provides an overview of biological evidence and gives the student an understanding of the current practices for biological evidence collection and preservation, body fluid identification, the forensic Short Tandem Repeat (STR) analysis workflow, existing forensic DNA databases, and specialized methods and tools. While it does not provide sufficient education and training to make a graduate eligible to be a DNA analyst in a crime lab, it does lay the foundation for the student to understand the typical handling and processing of biological evidence and the generation of forensic DNA profiles, prior to advanced DNA analysis methods being performed, such as FIGG. This course is taught by the certificate program Director, Dr. Claire Glynn, who has significant expertise in the areas of forensic biology, forensic DNA analysis, and also FIGG. This course is delivered in the Spring I mini-term (7 weeks). Students who are already experienced forensic practitioners, and therefore do not need this introductory course can instead further explore novel technologies by taking an elective course to substitute the first introductory course. An ideal elective course was developed, Forensic DNA Phenotyping: Appearance and Ancestry Inference, which is taught by one of the industry’s leading experts in that field, Dr. Susan Walsh. Forensic DNA Phenotyping is very complementary to FIGG as crossover exists between them, and many challenging cold case investigations request both phenotyping and FIGG to produce investigatory leads to help resolve the case.


For the next course in the certificate program, it was deemed necessary that students delve in detail into genetic genealogy and its application to both forensic and non-forensic investigations. In other Forensic DNA (STR) courses/programs, and indeed in the FBI’s Quality Assurance Standards (QAS) for employment as a DNA analyst in a crime lab, it is required that the student/analyst has prerequisite coursework completed in biochemistry, molecular biology, and genetics. This is to ensure they have a thorough understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms that form the basis of forensic STR typing. Similarly, for a FIGG investigator, it is essential to master the rules of inheritance, and the scientific methods and types of DNA analysis used to create the genetic profiles for the purposes of establishing genetic relationships. Therefore, the second course in the program is Forensic Genetic Genealogy, which is delivered in the Spring II mini-term (7 weeks). This course is currently taught by Dr. Ugo A. Perego, who has over 20 years of experience in genetic genealogy and population genetics. Dr. Perego began his career at the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF), where he traveled the world collecting DNA samples and genealogical data to produce the world’s largest and most comprehensive database of correlated genetic and genealogical data, which is now a reference database for AncestryDNA¹⁰. Dr. Perego’s course includes, but is not limited to, thorough instruction in autosomal DNA, Y-chromosomal, X-chromosomal, and mitochondrial DNA testing. Together with introducing the fundamentals of these testing methods, it is also important to discuss their strengths and limitations, the vast differences in the probative information they yield, and their relevance in genealogical and forensic investigations. All of this forms the foundation of understanding the value of the information that can be derived from these types of analyses and will ultimately strengthen an investigator’s ability to harvest more information from a FIGG investigation. Moreover, discussion of the various genotyping and sequencing services available to law enforcement agencies is also key to this course. While Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) microarrays were once the gold standard for the generation of the required data for a FIGG investigation, there now exist other technologies and analyses such as Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS), and targeted SNP sequencing kits e.g. Verogen’s ForenSeq Kintelligence kit, while more technologies are in research and developmental validation¹¹. Further to this, it is important to discuss the use of bioinformatics, especially when dealing with degraded samples, which are commonly encountered, in particular with decades-old cold case investigations. While FIGG may still be a relatively new field, albeit rapidly evolving, the field of genetic genealogy itself, i.e. family history research using DNA, has long been established and has reached a level of maturity and sophistication that allows its methods to be sound and credible. There exists a plethora of genetic genealogy tools that allow a researcher/investigator to yield valuable information, from which to make genetic relationship inferences from DNA matches in the genetic genealogy databases used by law enforcement and FIGG experts. Understanding how to use these databases and the many tools within them, as well as all the external tools, is essential to a researcher/investigator as this knowledge does not just make an investigation more efficient, but it could make or break the case.


In a FIGG investigation, once the genetic data has been generated and submitted to the genetic genealogy database(s) and DNA matches are identified within the database, the next step is to perform genealogical research using documentary evidence to build family trees from the DNA matches. While some may assume that record searching and collecting documentary evidence is simply achieved via google searching and from online public family trees, which can sometimes be inaccurate, it is in fact a much more sophisticated and detail-focused process. The third course in the certificate program, Genealogy Principles and Methods, is therefore built to address genealogical research and the analysis of documentary evidence. This course is delivered in the Summer Term (12 weeks). Importantly, this course covers in-depth the Genealogy Standards set forth by the Board for the Certification of Genealogists (BCG) and also the International Commission for the Accreditation of Professional Genealogists (ICAPGen). The BCG is a non-profit organization founded in 1964 as a professional credentialing body for genealogists. The BCG sets the standards for competence and ethics in genealogical research, including standards for documenting, evidence analysis and correlation, writing, and kinship determination for the field. The BCG lists 90 standards for genealogical research and the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) to establish the credibility of conclusions from genealogical investigations¹². These standards provide an excellent framework from which curricular content was developed. This course is currently taught by Prof. Mark A. Wentling, who holds the Certified Genealogist (CG) credential from BCG. Prof. Wentling has over 25 years of experience in genealogical research, with extensive expertise in forensic genealogy, including heir searching and military repatriation of fallen soldiers. He is also an elected director on the Board of Directors of the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), and was recently the vice president of APG’s Forensic Genealogy Special Interest Group. In his course, methods for documenting, planning research, collecting data, organization of that data, deductive reasoning from the evidence, and effective record searching, e.g census, civil, and vital records, etc., are taught. Documentary evidence and the standards set forth by BCG help researchers/investigators critically evaluate and correlate accurate documentary evidence to reach credible conclusions about relationships and identities using reliable sources. Importantly, knowing how to perform effective genealogical research can save a significant amount of time in an investigation and will help prevent errors of misidentification. In addition, it is crucial that investigators learn to work with, and document, valid sources of evidence/records to support their reached conclusions in an investigation, with added consideration that these could be requested during the discovery process in court proceedings.


The professional competencies of a student are best evaluated following the culmination of educational coursework in the core competencies established in the program objectives by putting their skills and knowledge into practice. Therefore, the fourth and final course in the certificate program is the FIGG practicum. This course occurs in the Fall I mini-term (7 weeks). This is not a traditional course whereby lecture content and assignments are administered. Instead, it is a practical exercise whereby the student will put their practical skills and knowledge to the test, through either performing a mock FIGG case(s) investigation, an independent research project, or an internship experience with one of our industry collaborators. Collaboration with industry practitioners has been mutually beneficial and has delivered incredible outcomes for both real case investigations and the students, as was evidenced by some of the students from the inaugural 2021 cohort of the program who successfully resolved real cases. Experiential education has become an important and effective feature of higher education institutions within the last decade¹³. Experiential education opportunities allow students to put into practice their acquired knowledge from a coherent program of study. It provides evidence that a student has gained the fundamental core competencies required for the field and achieved the mission of the program. In this practicum course, the students are demonstrating their knowledge and skills gained by putting them to the test, while at the same time being mentored, guided, and encouraged through the process. While this practicum course provides the educators with demonstrated success of the attained outcomes they hoped their students would achieve, more importantly, it gives the student a sense of accomplishment, achievement, and proficiency in the goals they originally set out to achieve by enrolling in such a program. Indeed, no greater measure of successful outcomes of a program, and its students, can be achieved than through demonstrated competency in the program objectives.


These four courses in the graduate certificate program cover the full spectrum of biological evidence from standard processes currently employed in crime labs, through to genetic genealogy and documentary genealogical research for forensic investigations, culminating in a practicum exercise. Through these four courses, the student achieves 12 credits of graduate coursework and is awarded a Graduate Certificate. This adheres to the agreement of the university with the Office of Higher Education for the State of Connecticut, whereby to be awarded a Graduate Certificate in any discipline it must contain a minimum of 12 credits of graduate coursework. Master’s degrees must contain a minimum of 30 credits of graduate coursework. It was deemed at the time of design that a graduate certificate (i.e. 12 graduate credits/four 3-credit courses) would be sufficient to provide the necessary core competencies/curriculum for FIGG. Several students also choose to combine their certificate with a Master’s degree (e.g. M.S. in Investigations) to further enhance their educational exploration and to gain advanced credentials.


The Non-Traditional Student & Online Education

The process of carrying out a FIGG investigation is largely performed online, with the exception of the laboratory processing of the DNA to generate the required data. Therefore, a fully online certificate program in FIGG is feasible and ideal as the curriculum can be effectively delivered in an online educational environment. In addition, a fully online program broadens the spectrum of prospective students as they are then not restricted in terms of geographic locations.


The University of New Haven’s online Graduate Certificate in Forensic Genetic Genealogy meets the needs of the larger community of learners by delivering customized and non-traditional educational delivery models. This fully online program was intentionally designed to be accessible to the non-traditional student i.e., an adult learner who works full-time and perhaps is also a parent or caregiver. The program was purposely designed to be delivered in four sequential accelerated terms i.e., Spring I, Spring II, Summer, and Fall I mini-terms, with one course delivered per mini-term. This allows the student to focus on one subject/course at a time. All the courses are delivered asynchronously i.e., there are no live class times. Asynchronous learning allows the student to view instructional materials each week at times that suit their own schedules. The courses are not “self-paced” however, as there are weekly assignments and tasks due. This allows the student to manage their time efficiently and provides a measure of accountability. University Learning Management Systems (LMS’s) have greatly improved in recent years, largely due to the increased demand for online/hybrid learning models across the world. The University of New Haven utilizes the Canvas LMS platform. Canvas is a web-based system for managing course materials, creating instructional lecture videos, posting announcements, administering assessments, and communicating with students. It creates an online environment where students and professors can connect with each other and form a bond, despite never meeting in person.


The certificate program is also designed as a cohort program, i.e. all students begin together, and complete the program together. Studies have shown that this model greatly enhances a student’s experiences and educational outcomes¹⁴. Students within a cohort form a community through true collaborative learning. They have an added support mechanism in their peers as they all share a common interest and goal. Some people can find online education, especially asynchronous learning, to be a lonely and isolating experience. This program however has mechanisms in place to foster a sense of belonging and community. These include non-mandatory weekly live “office hours” via Zoom which give students the opportunity to “drop in” and ask questions, introduce themselves, and get to know their professors and peers. The assignments and assessment artifacts administered throughout all the courses in the program are designed to stimulate discussion, collaboration, and critical thinking through the use of social annotation tools, discussion boards, etc. In addition, students also have access to the university’s many resources, including the university’s online library database which includes access to thousands of scholarly journals and the Ancestry Library Edition database for record searching. Students also have access to the university’s nationally recognized Center for Career Development, the Center for Learning Resources, and can engage with the wider University of New Haven community by joining student organizations. For the faculty within the program, the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence provides support for developing student-centered courses and offers guidance in high-impact, innovative teaching practices. In addition, the university’s Office of eLearning offers expert instructional designers to assist faculty with the development of online courses to create meaningful, engaging, and accessible online learning experiences for students.


In the current 2022 cohort of the FIGG certificate program, the demographics of the students are quite remarkable, and certainly do not represent the typical traditional student demographic. The average age of the students is 45 years of age, ranging from 21 to 73 years of age. Approximately 93% of the students are female, while 7% are male. Students are located in over 28 different states in the U.S., as well as Australia, the UK, and Canada. As this is a graduate program, all the students have at least a bachelor’s degree, from a variety of disciplines, although many have masters and doctoral degrees also. Approximately 60% of the cohort already work within the law enforcement community (e.g. forensic scientists, detectives, death investigators, etc.). As a token of gratitude for their service, we provide a 30% tuition discount to any student that currently works within the law enforcement community (e.g. private and public crime labs, local/state/federal/international law enforcement agencies, etc.).


The Future

As the field of FIGG continues to grow and evolve, it is essential that we are responsive to changes and adapt our curriculum appropriately. With each new cohort of the program and with each new delivery of courses, we will continue to modify the curriculum to keep up to date with new developments in the field and ensure the students graduate with the required skills and knowledge the industry needs. As best practices and standards for FIGG become established it will also be necessary to implement these into our educational programs and ensure rigorous consensus and education standards. Collaboration with all stakeholders is necessary to achieve this.

Lastly, we must consider and pay attention to new and emerging laws surrounding the use of FIGG¹⁵, both nationally and internationally, while also giving consideration to ethical and privacy concerns. We will continue to collaborate with industry practitioners and government organizations as we collectively work towards our common goals of protecting public safety by improving our methods, technologies, training, and education. This is all instrumental to the fulfillment of our mission, our commitment to public service, by using science to serve justice.


For further information about the University of New Havens’ Graduate Certificate in Forensic Genetic Genealogy, please visit the following links for the certificate program webpage, including the tuition fees and application portal to apply for the next cohort beginning January 2023.




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