Lake Erie alumna explores the forensics of opioids in Lake County


Thanks to a unique internship opportunity with the Lake County Crime Lab, LEC’s Haley Roniger ’17 has made waves exploring the world of forensic chemistry in the era of designer drugs.

Originally from Painesville, Roniger graduated from Riverside High School and the allied health technology program at Auburn Career Center before earning her B.S. in chemistry from LEC’s School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Her studies prepared her for an expansive internship at the Lake County Crime Lab (LCCL), leading her work to be featured at the Midwestern Association of Forensic Science in Cincinnati this past fall.

While she couldn’t legally handle confidential forensic evidence, the coveted ‘hands on’ aspect of her internship was far from hampered. Sifting through research for a project on the opioid fentanyl and similarly structured designer drugs called ‘analogs’ kept her invested and engaged.

“Fentanyl is a fast-growing problem in Ohio,” she said. “Acrylfentanyl was a focus for the project as it’s one of the newer analogs seen by the Lake County Crime Lab.”

As part of her supervised research, Roniger ran samples of fentanyl and acrylfentanyl using state-of-the-art gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC/MS) and Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) techniques.

LCCL’s Supervisor of Chemistry and Toxicology Douglas Rohde took Roniger on as his second ever intern from Lake Erie College. He usually hires only one intern each year.

Over the course of several months, Roniger created a presentation poster for an audience of forensic chemists outside of Ohio as well as non-chemists. It explains how a recently added regulatory component of the Ohio Revised Code, the Pharmacophore Rule, allows LCCL to classify fentanyl analogs as Schedule I drugs by observing their molecular structure.

Roniger illustrated one of the critical roles trained chemists play in resolving law enforcement and public health issues, which is to communicate clear and accurate reports. “When researching these topics, it’s not enough to just gather the pertinent information; it is also necessary to understand the science behind it,” she said.

Rohde noted the knowledge of organic chemistry Roniger acquired at LEC prepared her well for her role.

“Legal terms and courtroom proceedings can be learned on the job. I need a chemist who knows what it means to titrate rather than adjudicate,” he said. “The risk a student takes in doing this is that their career may take a right turn from the forensic chemistry track to polymers or the pharmaceutical industry. I often say, ‘With a chemistry degree, you can rule the world!’”

Like many jobs in forensics, Roniger’s internship even pulled her away from sterile test tubes and whirring machines. A fly on the courtroom wall, she observed how a body of evidence takes shape after it leaves the lab.

“I was able to see an entire case through, from jury selection all the way to the verdict reading,” she said. “The Lake County Prosecutor’s Office graciously let me sit in on some interesting trials throughout my internship and also encouraged me to ask any questions I may have about the process.”

Rohde offered three pieces of advice to other students in quest of similar opportunities: discuss internships with your academic advisor before your senior year, find out which laboratories in your hometown hire interns, and consider interning in the fall, winter or spring to dodge the summer competition.

Now nearly a year after her graduation from LEC, Roniger is preparing to take on more laboratory work and research at the graduate level.

Of her experience at the LCCL, she said, “I was—and still am—thrilled with the opportunity.”

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