Forensic Scientist Amy Harlukowicz-Proctor Is a Key Part of Michigan State Police’s Crime-Fighting Unit
To say that Amy Harlukowicz-Proctor ’93 is in a results-driven profession would be an understatement. She has dedicated most of her professional career to forensic science. The supervisor/manager for the Biology Unit of the Michigan State Police’s Lansing lab helps law enforcement process crime scene evidence that is often the difference in deciding guilt or innocence. It’s a responsibility she embraces—and doesn’t take lightly.
“We literally hold people’s lives in our hands,” said Proctor, who has worked as a civilian member of the MSP since 2001. “There is a lot of pressure to produce the highest quality of work possible with a very fast turn-around time. With that said, the sense of satisfaction that comes from completing a case and testifying to the results in court can be great.”
Proctor has testified in court 52 times during her 19-year forensic science career. After completing her Master of Science degree in criminal justice with a forensic science concentration from Michigan State University, she started as a serologist/DNA analyst with the Hamilton (Ohio) County Coroner’s Office near Cincinnati in 1995.
For many years she processed blood and DNA evidence as a bench analyst on cases ranging from criminal sexual assault, homicides, aggravated felonious assaults, kidnappings, robberies and arson.
“Pretty much any type of evidence that could possibly contain someone’s biological material has been submitted to the laboratory,” Proctor said.
And that included finding DNA off a submarine sandwich.
“A suspect took a bite out of the sandwich before he decided to rob the restaurant,” Proctor said, recalling the case. “I was adamant that I could not get a DNA profile off a sandwich that someone had bitten. My supervisor advised me to try, and to my surprise, I got a beautiful DNA profile off that bitten area.”
Currently, she supervises a team of scientists who aid the MSP in its investigations.
“Now my day consists of mostly managerial duties, overseeing casework and not necessarily performing casework duties,” Proctor said. “I still get into the lab to complete my DNA and Body Fluid Identification (BFI) proficiency tests. … I still get supplemental evidence samples from old cases I did when I was a bench analyst, so I still get the satisfaction of writing up DNA reports.”
She said technology advances in her field have tremendously improved methods and results. When she started, to get a successful DNA profile, scientists needed a sample about the size of a dime. Now, a sample only needs to be the size of a pinhead.
“There often times is very little blood on crime scene evidence, and that is the art of our profession – to find very small blood stains and try to get a DNA profile from a trace amount of blood,” Proctor said. “There may be a single hair, and we attempt to get DNA from a single hair root.”
And just how accurate are television shows like “CSI” in depicting her profession?
“We obviously do not drive Hummers, wear loads of makeup, high heels or designer shades,” Proctor said. “And not all crime scenes are processed in broad daylight.”
She said scientists must wear fatigues and “lots” of personal protective equipment to the crime scene, and “actual lab work is not performed in an hour. I always say the CSI-type shows do get the buzz words correct and they are produced for entertainment purposes.”
Proctor does enjoy watching other shows like “Forensic Files” and “Cold Case Files” that are based on actual criminal cases and investigations. She actually made a cameo appearance on a “Forensic Files” episode and said, “even the best of the forensic science shows have to rely on reenactment, but they are based on real lab science and real case facts.”
So, what is the job of a forensic scientist really like?
“I would have to say that there is a misconception that the job of a forensic scientist is so ‘exciting,’ ” Proctor said. “The work can be very routine and not very glamorous. … The reality is good science takes hours, weeks and sometimes months. We have backlogs to deal with, rush cases to process, court deadlines to meet and pressure to continually improve our casework turn-around times. This job is very mentally draining.”
However, it also can be very, very rewarding at times.
“The one (case) that stands out to me involved a young boy who was living in an abusive situation,” Proctor said. “We were able to provide testing results that aided in resolving a bad situation. The prosecutor called me and said, ‘I’m sure if the young victim could tell you himself, he would thank you for all your hard work on this case.’ I remember I just was overcome with emotion after he told me that. I remember thinking to myself that ‘yes, this is why I do this job day after day.’ ”
Outside of work, she said attending musical, theater and sporting events with her 7-year-old son and being involved in youth ministry at her church keeps her grounded.
During her time at Siena Heights, she said professors such as Sister Eileen Rice and Dr. Susan Mole shaped her both personally and professionally.
“(Dr. Mole) was such an integral part of my choice to go into the forensic science field,” said Proctor, who was a chemistry major at Siena Heights. “She was my academic advisor, and I remember when I worked on my senior research project, she provided a lot of guidance. I think that project, in general, really helped me throughout the entire process of completing my master’s thesis research.”
She said her work often reminds her of all “the bad in the world.” However, she said she copes by training scientists to be the best they can be, and letting the justice system prove innocent or guilt.
“Our job is to simply provide the testing results,” Proctor said.