DPAA scientist recognized for research excellence

By Air Force Staff Sgt. James Thompson

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Dr. Gregory E. Berg, lab case manager for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s (DPAA) scientific analysis directorate, was presented with the 2019 Ellis R. Kerley Research Award during the annual American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Feb. 19, 2020.

The award annually recognizes one forensic anthropologist who best demonstrates excellence in pursuit of developments in the field of forensic anthropology.

Berg earned this year’s award for his research in intraperson variation in isotopic values, which is directly linked with the establishment of the first Department of Defense ANAB-accredited isotope laboratory, housed at DPAA.

DPAA’s mission is to provide the fullest possible accounting for missing personnel to their families and the nation. To do this, the agency must not only facilitate recovery operations, but must also conduct extensive scientific analysis to identify remains discovered in the field.

Berg explained that in a typical identification process, multiple analysis of the individual’s case history, odontology, anthropology, material evidence, and DNA are all used as a means of pinpointing to one candidate, or missing service member.

“Isotope analysis becomes another scientific aspect of that identification process,” said Berg. “We can separate out U.S. service members from non-U.S. service members using isotope analysis and potentially narrow down the area of the geographical region where someone came from.”

With added isotope analysis capabilities, scientists are able to quickly determine whether remains belong to any missing in action personnel or not, saving time, money, and resources. This analysis does not replace DNA analysis, but is simply an additional step scientists can use before expending further resources.

“That testing parameter may only take us 35 days and it will only cost us about $20-$25, versus a DNA test which can cost several thousands and take months,” said Berg. “So we can get an answer really quick and that’s what we call ‘triaging.’ This is one of the first analyses we can do with isotopes – separating people into different population groups.”

A high amount of refined sugars help make up the American diet, which is a partial key to this method. Refined sugars often come from sugar cane, a C4 pathway plant. Americans have large quantities of C4 plants in their diets as compared to other groups around the world (sugar cane and corn, being two examples).

Southeast Asian countries have large quantities of rice in their diet – rice is a C3 plant. The differences in these pathways contribute to isotope signatures in human bones and teeth.

“It’s in that refined sugar that we see this carbon isotope that spikes way higher than anyone else over other countries and other demographics,” said Berg. “So if you look at our sugar intake as Americans versus the sugar intake of your average person living in Vietnam, it’s vastly different.”

In order for isotope analysis to become a useable tool, Berg and his team have had to conduct baseline research and database building. Part of this research also was to determine how a person varies across their body in isotopic values, as well as how world groups differ from each other. They have also worked to build an isotope lab, which then met accreditation standards through ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board, or ANAB in December of 2019.

“In order to make the comparisons that we wish to make, and in order to separate those people out (non-U.S. service members), on some level, you’ve got to know what the limits of intrapersonal variation are,” said Berg.

His team studied about 11 South Korean service members from DPAA’s sister organization, the Ministry of National Defense for killed in Action Recovery and Identification (MAKRI), and 14 U.S. service members and sampled their long bones. They then looked at all the variation in individuals but also checked it across ancestry groups to ensure that there were no population differences (the intraperson variation was the same between population groups).

“Now we have the baseline research to be able to say these are the limits that we see in these isotopes for what intraperson variation is and if you’re greater than that, then you’re someone else (if two bones have a difference between them greater than intraperson variation, then they are two different people).

Finding these value parameters was the basis of his team’s award-winning paper titled ‘A Large-Scale Evaluation of Intraperson Isotopic Variation Within Human Bone Collagen and Bioapatite’.

Hundreds of scientists may compete for the award every year but only one can be named as the Kerley R. Ellis Research Award recipient. Berg and his team’s work proved valuable not only to DPAA’s mission, but also the entire forensic anthropology field.

“I’m very proud of this award,” said Berg. “I’m proud of this award for not just me, but I’m proud to be part of the team that did that work. This was a team effort.”

To Dr. Berg, winning an award isn’t the highlight of his work. It’s the honor behind knowing what they’re doing to identify America’s missing has an impact.

“It means the things that I do matter,” Berg said. “They don’t matter to just a couple of people here or there, but hopefully they matter to the entire military as a cohesive whole. We made a promise to our service members and we, DPAA, are the folks who are trying to keep that promise.”
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