Holden, Mass., Teen Develops Rust-Proof Crime-Solving Technique

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. - With the news filled with stories about violence and unsolved crimes, it's comforting to know one Holden, Mass., teenager may help bring lawbreakers to justice.

Seventeen-year-old Brian Elolampi, a junior at Wachusett Regional High School, has developed a science project into a new method for recovering fingerprints, even those found on rusty guns and knives that have lain underwater for months.

"Up to this point, after every duration of rusting I've tested, I've been able to accurately lift fingerprints from the metal - so far I'm up to two and a half months of rusting," Elolampi said.

Make no mistake - this scientist may be young but he's accomplished.

"The project, to the best of my knowledge, solves a problem no law enforcement agency and no one in the world knows how to do," Elolampi said.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Ladislav H. Berka, who has advised him on the project, confirms that youth is breaking new ground. Both at the state crime lab and at May forensic conference at WPI, experts had never seen results like these.

"It was generally agreed he is the first person to have developed methods of systematically recovering fingerprints from rust-covered objects," Berka said. "At the crime lab, he was given some additional ideas to try out concerning fingerprint development and preservation."

It all started when Berka completed a 1997 sabbatical leave at the crime lab in Sudbury. Inspired, he returned to WPI to plan a number of project ideas for college or high-school students.

Last year one of Berka's former Ph.D. students, Clifton E. Wheeler, now the science and math coordinator at Wachusett high school, brought Elolampi to WPI's Project Presentation Day, in which the best student projects are on display. That day made a lasting impression on the young man, who became interested in Berka's proposed project, "Developing Fingerprints from Rust-Covered Objects." The project had been suggested by crime lab Sergeant Debbie Rebeiro, who works chiefly on the development of fingerprints recovered from crime scenes.

"Weapons connected with crimes, such as guns and knives, are often found many months later out in the open in a rusted state, or are recovered from being underwater," Berka explained. Until now, criminals could be fairly sure that these rusted-out weapons would yield no incriminating fingerprints.

"Brian began working on the project during the summer of 1998, and continued through this academic year," Berka said. "Most of his project work was done in his home in Holden. His mother let him spread out all his stuff on her side-by-side washer and dryer!"

Obviously, the project presented a challenge. "Among other things, I had to find a way of removing the rust without destroying the fingerprint," Elolampi said. "The process has to remove the rust, and underneath the fingerprint is still there."

Since some methods remove both rust and fingerprint, he worked to develop a method that removes the rust and leaves the fingerprint behind.

Outside of his phenomenal success in this project, Elolampi is a typical teenager. Next fall he will be a captain on the Wachusett football team. He enjoys rugby and weight lifting and coaches a middle-school flag football team. However, the project has its own rewards in his high-school world. He won an excellence award in math and science this spring, due in part to his fingerprinting project.

Elolampi has established two methods of recovering fingerprints from rusty objects.

Because he hopes to publish his work, both he and Berka hesitate to reveal the exact nature of the methods. However, Elolampi has entered his project into several science competitions, placing at or near the top in all of them. Most recently he won a second-place award at the Massachusetts State Science Fair, held April 20-May 1 at MIT. He took home a $500 check and an alternate $20,000 scholarship for the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

His findings have been well received by academics. "The morning of May 1, I attended a meeting of the New England Association of Chemistry Teachers in Wellesley," Berka said. "In a casual conversation with one of the participants, he happened to mention a great project he saw the day before at MIT dealing with fingerprints. Furthermore, he mentioned that his wife, who has been a judge at many science fairs through the years, had never given a project 100 out of 100 points, which was what she gave Brian's project!"

Earlier this spring Elolampi presented his work at the crime lab, where about 25 forensic scientists listened to the high-school student explain his research findings. In mid-May, he attended the WPI forensic conference, where he addressed more than 100 participants on his results.

The Crime Scene Services Section of the state crime lab has issued Elolampi an open invitation to use its facilities and personnel. He is currently working on photographing recovered fingerprints. Such photographs will document the recovered evidence, an essential component for criminal trials. While scientific achievement is satisfying, he is equally thrilled about its possibly far-reaching effects.

"You may know that a crime has happened but you don't know all the story," Elolampi said. "So you have to use common sense and all the skills you've learned to unravel it. If you find that clue, you could put the criminal away. With a new method like this, a few previously unsolvable crimes could now be solved."