University of Pittsburgh

Alumni Spotlight: Fighting Crime at the Microscopic Level

Friday, April 25, 2014

Given the popularity of crime-science TV shows such as C.S.I., jurors have come to expect decisive forensic evidence in the courtroom. But what makes for compelling TV doesn’t always match up with the limits of technology.

Pittsburgh-based Cybergenetics, led by company President and Co-Founder Ria David (EMBA ’08), is finally moving forensic capabilities closer to juror’s lofty expectations. Using its proprietary TrueAllele® technology, Cybergenetics harnesses a unique computer-automated method. It specializes in analyzing DNA mixtures from more than one person. Traditional forensic analysis, given the data complexity, often cannot make conclusive identifications. Cybergenetics can. The company has helped to identify victims in mass disasters, including the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, and difficult-to-solve homicides, including the February 2014 murder of sisters Sarah and Susan Wolfe in East Liberty.

“We’re able to look at all the data, regardless of its size or complexity. The more info the computer has, the better it likes it,” David says.

In the world of forensics science, Cybergenetics is a disruptive technology. It significantly increases the speed of data analysis and significantly improves its statistical accuracy. David recalls a recent example in which Cybergenetics analyzed a DNA sample from underneath a murder victim’s fingernail. The sample was composed of 93 percent the victim’s DNA and 7 percent the perpetrator’s. The prosecutor sent the data on a Friday, and Cybergenetics had it ready by Monday morning, with a match between the evidence and suspect 189 billion times more probable than coincidence. The FBI’s analysis, by contrast, took more than two months to complete and had a match probability of one in 13,000.

“We can analyze the data and get a match very quickly, accurately, and objectively,” David says.

The company has analyzed DNA that has helped to put sexual predators behind bars. In January 2014, Ralph Skundrich was tried for rape in Allegheny County. Cybergenetics DNA expert Mark W. Perlin — who is David's husband and the company co-founder, CEO, and chief scientific officer — testified about TrueAllele’s 4 quadrillion match statistic that linked clothing from the crime scene to Skundrich. The computer’s statistic was a billion times higher than the crime lab analysis. Skundrich was found guilty and sentenced to 75 to 150 years in prison.

Perlin is a former senior research faculty member in Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science and has completed prior projects on MRI technology, genomics, and cancer research.  David credits her Katz EMBA Worldwide education for helping her to grow the business. While a student, she applied what she learned in pricing structures to Cybergenetics’s government bidding process. This continues to be a challenge as the company’s products and services do not fit the mold of traditional forensic analysis.

“We got the bid, and that was enough to cover my MBA cost. I was only three months into my education and it had already paid for itself,” David says.

When David first considered the Katz EMBA Worldwide program, she was skeptical she could fit it into her busy schedule. After all, she was a mother, wife, and entrepreneur.  “For me, the fact that we only met every second week was helpful. Plus, I still had the flexibility to travel for business,” she says.

Furthermore, EMBA Worldwide’s global perspective — with its Global Executive Forums in Pittsburgh, São Paulo, and Prague — appealed to David. She lived all over the world before settling in Pittsburgh. A native of South Africa, she attended college in Israel and then worked in Japan for a period of time.

“From my classmates, I have a resource network at my back that is second to none,” David says, noting that she sometimes calls on them for business advice if the topic falls in their area of expertise.

While Cybergenetics continues to expand, it faces the challenge of winning over new customers now fixed to the old technology. Even so, from its small offices in Oakland, the company has assisted clients everywhere from California to the United Kingdom.  Business is looking up thanks to recent court rulings that declare its form of computational analysis as admissible in court and new forensic guidelines that have raised the bar for the match probability.

David says that learning the details of horrific crimes is difficult, but knowing her company is making a difference makes it worth it. “We are seeing an increase in the number of convictions in cases using forensic evidence that we processed. That’s satisfying, especially in a homicide or a rape, knowing that we can help stop that,” she says.