Over about sixteen years (1993 – 2008), European authorities were searching for a mysterious woman linked to six murders and more than forty crimes overall. Her DNA was present at every crime scene. Police in Germany even offered a €300,000 reward for information leading to her arrest. This brutal serial killer became known as “the most dangerous woman in Germany,” along with more colorful monikers such as the "woman without a face" or the "Phantom of Heilbronn.” Fortunately, this woman was eventually located, and the mystery was solved.
As a measurement scientist and analytical chemistry professor, my brain first veers off into numbers and unit conversions, of course. Using Google’s favorite euros-to-dollars converter, it appears that €300,000 (euros) today would equal $326,663. Digging a little deeper, inflation rates would make €300,000 in 2008 equal to €369,491 today, and that would put the reward at just over $400,000 in the current market. So, who got the reward worth about $400,000? No one. The woman with the now famous DNA sequence was innocent, and there was never any serial killer.
This investigative blunder was eventually traced to a contamination issue, aided by repeated failures of laboratory personnel who simply did not think to do the appropriate control experiment. The control experiment is often called the “blank” measurement, at least in all the cool analytical chemistry crowds. A quick look through the textbook on my desk reveals that “Blanks account for interference by other species in the sample...” For example, if there happened to be a woman working in a cotton swab factory in Bavaria, and she was not particularly careful with her DNA, and—stay with me—these cotton swabs were used to analyze DNA evidence in just over forty crimes (at least) in Germany without analyzing the cotton swab alone (the blank or control), authorities may misinterpret this meaningless DNA interference and wrongly conclude that there is a lawless, dangerous woman involved in every one of these crimes.
The year the Phantom of Heilbronn mystery was solved, 2008, is the same year that I started my independent research and teaching career here at Auburn’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. My teaching assignments cover chemistry from the fundamental undergraduate level up to the special-topics graduate level where we focus on bioanalytical techniques, and I spend a great deal of my time at the interface between teaching and scholarly research. Thirteen graduate students have completed their Ph.D. degrees under my mentorship, publishing their work in a variety of journal articles. Today there are nine additional researchers working on their dissertations, alongside one more postdoctoral scientist. About thirty different undergraduate students have also worked in our analytical research laboratories since 2008.