Tech students create the next generation of field drug testing

Kara Fulkerson and Claudia McDavid work in a lab on Tennessee Tech's campus.Creating a more creditable field drug test is the goal for three Tennessee Tech University students. Courtney Lapointe, Kara Fulkerson and Claudia McDavid all received this opportunity by participating in the university’s Creative Inquiry Summer Experience (CISE) program.

The program provides students with a paid internship to help develop their research and creative inquiry skills. In addition, the grant allows them to work on the project with faculty members during the summer, where they present their findings.

“The CISE program has helped me develop useful skills that I am now using in my classes and will continue to use in the future if I am successful in obtaining a career in a crime lab,” Fulkerson, sophomore forensic chemistry major, said.

Lapointe, recent chemistry graduate, received her first CISE opportunity summer of 2019, where she worked with Jeffrey Boles, chairperson of chemistry at Tech, developing a proof of concept. After graduating and creating the evidence, Lapointe helped recruit other students to continue and expand the work she started. Fulkerson and McDavid received CISE grants this past summer to do just that and more. 

“When looking for research mentors, my main goal was to find someone involved in forensics research. I was immediately interested in doing research with Dr. Boles,” McDavid, junior chemistry major, said. “I’m very interested in drug chemistry and toxicology, so I thought this project would be fun to work on, and I didn’t know this was a problem before Dr. Boles and I spoke about it. It’s important to bring awareness to this issue and work on solving it.”

Their research is centered around taking a non-creditable field drug test with the chance of being a false positive and turning it into a definitive test. 

“It is rural areas that are more challenged with this problem than metropolitan areas because they don’t have their own crime labs. Metropolitan areas don’t have to wait on TBI to do a test for them,” Boles said. “A false positive in a metropolitan area can probably be determined much faster than in rural America. In rural America, it’s a much longer process. So, this really does address a challenge in rural communities.”

The students have developed a thin layer chromatography liquid on a micro-scale; chromatography is a technique used to separate components of a mixture that results in a definitive test and is used in forensic laboratories. This liquid is poured into tiny glass vials to create kits that help distinguish between various drugs, bath salts and amphetamines. 

“We had something that worked for the whole world, and we thought we were done. Then, the new THC products started coming out. The kit went back to being not quite what we wanted it to be, still too presumptive, still not definitive enough,” Boles said.

The group is working on optimizing the kits to identify every single substance. Fulkerson focuses on cannabinoids, compounds found in the cannabis plant, while McDavid focuses on opioids.

“Our goal is to get these definitive kits out in rural Upper Cumberland counties for beta testing as soon as we can. We want our kits to be good enough and accurate enough that the chances of a false positive are just really remote,” Boles said.

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