Summer Internship: Legal Aid Society DNA Unit

Munieshwar Ramdass is a senior at NYU Poly studying computer science and cyber security. This summer Munieshwar spent ten weeks interning with the Legal Aid Society, a non-profit law firm, helping re-engineer a statistical software for DNA analysis.

Finding the Internship:

While I was looking for summer internships this past spring, I saw a posting on NYU CareerNet for an internship at the Legal Aid Society in their DNA Unit. The internship not only involved computer science skills, but also touched on biology, law and statistics. Although I am majoring in computer science, I’ve loved biology since high school and the position piqued my interest. I thought it was strange that a public defender organization was looking for computer science majors, but I still sent in my application and resume. Several weeks later I was accepted as a summer intern.

During the interview process, the DNA Unit attorneys explained that they wanted to create a computer program that could replicate DNA test results from criminal cases. Currently the NYC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) has its own software to analyze DNA mixtures, but it has produced false positives which could possibly implicate innocent people. The software is also proprietary, so the source code is not available and therefore hard to analyze. Along with two other NYU Poly interns, I was tasked with replicating the Medical Examiner’s software to see how their office was calculating DNA tests and what flaws their program might have.

The Internship:

My first two weeks at Legal Aid were very confusing. I didn’t know if we would be able to reengineer OCME’s software because it seemed like an ambitious project. I also didn’t understand all the legal terminology and my supervisor, an attorney, wasn’t familiar with computer coding and software development. We spent two weeks analyzing the OCME’s validation studies and population statistics, but by the third week we had created a prototype program that the attorneys could use.

After we had completed the prototype, we tested the program using data from real cases and validation studies, and then compared our results to the results the OCME’s software had produced. By using DNA tests from the OCME’s validation studies, I was able to tweak the bugs and get more accurate results. My first breakthrough was when I was able to replicate the exact likelihood ratio as the OCME software, which meant we had successfully recreated their program and could use the software to help real clients.

Looking back:

From my perspective, our program will help juries understand that DNA evidence is not always accurate and shouldn’t be as heavily weighted when deciding a verdict. We also made our software open-sourced so that other law firms can use it for their clients. I’m one of the first programmers to connect biotechnology and law at Legal Aid, and I hope this will set a trend for programmers to get involved in the legal field.

Legal Aid was very welcoming and the staff was very diverse and came from different backgrounds. I learned a lot about the criminal justice system by reading real cases, attending trials involving DNA evidence, and learning about biostatistics and large data analysis. I enjoyed interning at Legal Aid, and I will continue to consult for the DNA Unit as well as help incoming interns learn our software and improve upon it.

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