Alumni Profile - From Physics to Forensic Genealogy

Thursday, April 29, 2010

“I shine a light on things for a living,” says Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD ’83. This simple statement covers Fitzpatrick’s wildly varying experiences since graduating, including building an optical laboratory in her garage, starting her own laser and optics company, and most recently, using “forensic genealogy” and DNA analysis to locate missing people, identify remains, and solve historical mysteries.

How can one person find success both as a physicist and as an expert in identifying remains and tracking down missing relatives? “I look at things differently to find clues about what’s really going on,” says Fitzpatrick. “It’s the same thought process, it’s only a matter of what you are looking at.” Fitzpatrick earned her PhD at Duke in experimental nuclear physics, but became fascinated in holography while on the faculty at Sam Houston State University in Texas. When she left the university, she took a job at Rockwell International Satellite Systems Division and built an optical lab in her garage so that she could pursue holograms as a hobby. A few years later, she was hired by Spectron Development Labs, a small laser diagnostics company. “People would say, ‘I have a problem,’ and I would shine a laser on it and solve it,” she says. “When you shine light on something, you can look at what’s reflected, scattered, transmitted, or absorbed. Every one of those things tells you about the property of the thing you’re shining light on.” In 1989, Fitzpatrick was laid off and decided to start her own company: “I didn’t have a job, but I had a lab in my garage, so I said, ‘I’m going to try this.’” Fitzpatrick’s company, Rice Systems, worked on projects involving lasers and integrated optics (fiber optics on a chip). She was also the leader of a team of scientists that designed the first laser to go on the space shuttle. Rice Systems did contractual work for the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and Chevron Oil Company among others.

As her company grew, Fitzpatrick moved out of her garage into a larger space and eventually hired 10 employees. While she was running Rice Systems, Fitzpatrick continued pursuing her long-standing interest in genealogy, including using DNA analysis to track her Fitzpatrick line. In 2005, two momentous events occurred: Rice Systems folded and Fitzpatrick published her first book, Forensic Genealogy. She attended a genealogy conference in Maine, partly to distract herself from the pain of her company’s demise, and took copies of her books with her. “At the conference, I just couldn’t stop selling the books,” she says. “People were interested in what I had to say and eventually I just started earning a living at it.” Today, she has published three genealogy books, and she has started a new company: Identifinders International. Fitzpatrick uses a combination of methods to solve mysteries related to identity, including DNA analysis, photo analysis, and dogged research using archival records. She’s had a number of high-profile successes, including identifying a two-year-old boy who died in the Titanic disaster, identifying the remains of a serviceman who died in an airplane crash in 1948, and exposing two fraudulent Holocaust memoirs. She’s also beginning work on a project related to North Carolina’s Lost Colony. Fitzpatrick misses physics, but says she hopes to have an opportunity to use optics to research the provenance of paintings. In any case, she’s looking forward to finding out what the future holds in her current line of work. “It’s going to be very interesting because I can work for myself and do what I do best,” she says, “which is being creative, ultimately creative.” For more info: For more images of Colleen's research, please go to our Duke University Flickr page.