Biological Sciences Alumna Leads NOPD Crime Lab, Aiming to Combat Crime with Science

February 05, 2024

Front entrance lobby area that displays fingerprints.

The front entrance lobby area at the NOPD Crime Lab, featuring a display of fingerprints. Within its range of forensic services, the Crime Lab specializes in latent print processing and analysis.

Shamika Kelley portrait

Dr. Shamika Kelley, LSU Biological Sciences alumna and Director of the NOPD Crime Lab. 

Baton Rouge – Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the NOPD Crime Lab in 2005, the department has worked with the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab in Baton Rouge for DNA testing. Now, after eighteen years, the NOPD Crime Lab has a new director who is determined to establish a fully equipped crime lab within the NOPD.

A native of LaPlace, La., Dr. Shamika Kelley’s interest in forensics was sparked in Ms. Dickerson’s classroom at East St. John High School. Ms. Dickerson turned her classroom into a makeshift crime scene and her students worked as investigators to solve the crime. Fast forward nearly two decades, Kelley now leads the team that is working to rebuild the NOPD Crime Lab and earn accreditation by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) National Accreditation Board (ANAB) and the FBI’s Quality Assurance Standards for DNA testing.

Dr. Kelley’s professional journey started at LSU where she earned her bachelor’s in Biological Sciences in 2007. “Growing up around here, LSU was a natural choice since it’s considered a prestigious university for knowledge, especially in STEM,” said Kelley. “I met all of my lifelong friends at LSU and built a network of great people around me, a network that I still lean on.”

One particularly special lifelong friend Dr. Kelley met while LSU was her husband. “I met my husband at a football game in my freshman year, and, I still remember the date, he proposed to me in the Cotillion ballroom at the Delta Gent Pageant on November 2,” said Kelley.

After graduating from LSU, Kelley worked at Reliagene in Harahan as a Forensic Technician. Kelley later went on to earn her Masters in Forensic and Investigative Genetics from the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, Texas in 2010. She then went on to work as a DNA analyst for the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC) for five years before being promoted to DNA supervisor until 2018. While there, Kelley and her team worked on sexual assault cases, which involved using chemical processes and machinery to extract, target, analyze, and interpret DNA data.

Shamika and her husband at LSU where they first met and later got engaged.

Shamika Kelley met her husband, Jason Kelley, at a football game, and the couple later became engaged at the LSU Union.

When Kelley started her PhD program in 2018, she stayed on as a consultant at the HFSC to help with backlogs — cases that had not been analyzed after 30 days.

“I really wanted to help people and help other crime labs with their backlogs, so I googled crime labs with backlogs and the NOPD crime lab kept popping up,” remembered Kelley. “I was surprised to see the lab hadn’t had a director in three years. I felt called to apply for the position and was excited, shocked, and elated all at once when I got the offer.”

Kelley assumed her role as director just over a year ago and hit the ground running by creating a four-step plan to revamp the crime lab and earn accreditation. According to Kelley, this process can take a few years to be fully completed and includes hiring and training personnel, developing and optimizing processes, validating equipment, and more.

“Starting from ground zero is tough. That is where we were with the DNA Unit when I arrived. However, we have developed workstations, ordered equipment and supplies, begun staffing the unit, and working toward accreditation,” adds Kelley. In her inaugural year, Kelley and the team have already secured notable wins, such as retaining accreditation in latent print processing and firearms analysis while also obtaining the first-ever accreditation in crime scene processing for the NOPD crime lab.

Photo that depicts an examination of bullets or casings under microscope.

In her inaugural year as the NOPD director, Kelley secured accreditation in latent print processing and firearms analysis. Utilizing a compound microscope, examiners scrutinize bullets or casings, looking for characteristics indicative of a possible match.

Reflecting on the successes so far, Kelley also highlighted the resilience of her team. “I am so proud of my team. They have faced many changes within the organization. But they have taken it in stride. They are the hardest-working, most passionate team, and I am inspired by them.”

Kelley’s goals going forward will be to increase the NOPD crime lab’s analyzing capacity, alleviate the workload of the Louisiana State Crime Lab, and partner with the two organizations to inspire those interested in STEM to work in their labs.

“With bringing forensic DNA analysis back to New Orleans, I am hoping it creates a feeling of a safer community for the city. We are attacking crime with science,” said Kelley. “We’re already doing that, and now we’re adding an important unit that will be state-of-the-art that will not only be able to answer questions regarding crime but also create opportunities in our city for those who have a passion for STEM.”