RESTON, Va. — For Thom Shaw, a computer is where science transforms into art.
“I don't really have to do any kind of science stuff,” said Thom Shaw, as he worked on an image taking shape on a computer screen. “I just have to do art stuff.”
This art, though, isn’t destined for a museum or a gallery. It’s opening a new chapter in a mystery.
“I am a forensic artist and I am also a case manager,” he said.
Shaw works for Parabon, a Virginia-based company that works with law enforcement on cold cases. Their specialty is unknown DNA samples collected at a crime scene. They recently completed their 200th solved case.
“What we do is trying to analyze DNA to learn new information about that person,” said Ellen Greytak, Parabon director of bioinformatics. “We can analyze it to help predict what that person looked like.”
The process is called “Snapshot.”
Parabon has used it to help law enforcement get a picture, literally, of the person whose DNA they’ve submitted.
“The instructions that built that person, are contained in their DNA,” Greytak said. “So, we can read it and figure out their eye color, their hair color, ancestry and the shape of their face.”
Translating that genetic information into a picture is where Thom Shaw comes in. He began his career years ago as a composite sketch artist.
“It was composite sketches, just hand-drawn with pencil,” he said.
Now, it’s all digital. The DNA sequences are then turned into a two-dimensional image of a face.
“There's some subjectivity again for me, but then, there's a whole scientific background,” Shaw said.
With clicks on a mousepad, a face begins to take shape—sometimes that of a potential suspect or, in other cases, unidentified murder victims. The cold cases can date back decades.
“The challenge is really to represent the face in a numerical way, in a mathematical way, so that we can say objectively, ‘That person's face is wider or the nose is longer,’” Greytak said.
The program isn’t perfect, though.
“If that person has an unusual hairstyle or a tattoo, scars, things like that, we don't know that,” Greytak said. “And another big part of it is age and weight. So, your DNA is the same the day you're born, as the day that you turn 80. So, we can't read the age of someone.”
That may be coming, with future advances pointing towards eventually unlocking age in DNA.
“Even though your DNA sequence doesn't change, there are modifications to the DNA that change through time,” Greytak said.
Another advancement on the horizon is the potential of going beyond two-dimensional faces to 3-D.
“Maybe get to the point where we can have instead of just a 2-D image, we can have a spinning head,” Shaw said.
They are efforts they hope can make a difference.
“Maybe we can give a little bit of closure,” Greytak said. “We can help that person sleep at night.”