Adam Hall began his master’s degree pro­gram in chem­istry and chem­ical biology at North­eastern while per­forming instru­mental analyses on sam­ples in the Mass­a­chu­setts State Police crime lab.

Tues­days and Thurs­days were drug days,” he recalls.

Nar­cotics offi­cers, who live under-​​cover on the streets buying and selling drugs, would descend on the lab with thou­sands of sam­ples, which each requiring a 30-​​minute com­po­si­tional analysis. The ana­lyt­ical queues in crime labs also include pre-​​employment drug screens, parolee urine sam­ples, methadone main­te­nance sur­veys and performance-​​enhancing drug screens for athletes.

Despite numerous instru­ments run­ning analyses non-​​stop, this amounts to a sig­nif­i­cant backlog,” says Hall, who joined Pro­fessor Paul Vouros’ research lab as a Co-​​op-​​PhD can­di­date in 2008 after com­pleting his MS. “A person may sit in jail before a con­fir­ma­tion hearing for sev­eral months or a year, waiting on the results of a single analysis.”

Prior to meeting Hall, Vouros — who dou­bles as a senior fac­ulty member in Northeastern’s Bar­nett Insti­tute of Chem­ical and Bio­log­ical Analysis — had begun col­lab­o­rating with a now defunct high-​​tech com­pany on chem­ical appli­ca­tions for its mini-​​ion filter, which is about the size of a dime. When placed in the front end of a mass spec­trom­eter, the small ana­lyt­ical instru­ment sep­a­rates and iden­ti­fies charged mol­e­cules based on their mobility in a car­rier gas. When Hall joined the lab, the company’s pro­to­types found new life.

Cur­rent drug analysis tech­niques, he said, sep­a­rate all of a sample’s com­po­nents using time-​​consuming liquid– or gas chromatography-​​mass spec­trom­etry methods, which obtain a char­ac­ter­istic mass for each. These tests, he said, take about half an hour to per­form and require a blank cleaning run between every analysis. In con­trast, Hall’s ion-​​filtration tech­nique takes only a few seconds.

Hall said other rapid tech­niques are avail­able to crim­inal inves­ti­ga­tors in the field, but are not con­clu­sive and their results are not robust. Typ­ical ion fil­tra­tion sys­tems, he noted, are large and sta­tionary. His mini-​​ion filter, how­ever, can inter­face with most mass spec­trom­e­ters used in forensic labs and, most impor­tantly, would be ideal for improving the per­for­mance capa­bil­i­ties of smaller mass spec­trom­e­ters being devel­oped for field use.

Adam’s work is at the point where it has been fully defined and can be done,” says Vouros, whose interest in foren­sics was encour­aged by Dr. Richard Safer­stein, a noted crim­i­nol­o­gist and long­time sup­porter of the Bar­nett Institute.

In a par­allel effort, Vouros’ lab will use the same tech­niques to develop new appli­ca­tions, opti­mizing the system to ana­lyze a broader range of com­pounds. In one project, another PhD stu­dent is devel­oping methods to iden­tify spe­cific bio­markers asso­ci­ated with DNA damage from cig­a­rette smoke.

We are showing now that we can save 95 per­cent of the time for these types of studies,” Vouros said.