But Roby’s role in advancing mitochondrial DNA as a critical tool in forensic science has not always been easy. She never imagined that one day in her early career, she would stand smack in the center of a fiery controversy where the heart of her work was on the line. Neither did she expect that the woman casting serious doubt would be a hero of hers, Dr. Mary-Claire King, the geneticist in the history books for discovering the genetic marker for breast cancer. King also happened to be the UC Berkeley professor who handed Roby her only A+ in grad school. 

The case of Cold War veteran Archie T. Bourg Jr., missing in action since 1958, threw teacher and student back into the same ring, but in opposite corners.

In the early ’90s, Roby was a young scientist extracting mitochondrial DNA from the bones of MIAs and identifying soldiers for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology lab near Washington, D.C. At the time, there were only a few seminal papers and not much casework using mitochondrial DNA for human identification. Roby was successfully charting a path when some of Bourg’s remains were brought to her decades after he was shot down over Armenia. She made the identification. But Archie’s sister, Lorna, somewhat understandably, wanted a second opinion after all that time had passed. She turned to the renowned Dr. King to repeat the tests.

King’s opinion was a shock. She declared the remains were not those of Lorna’s brother.

“Essentially, she was saying we weren’t doing quality work,” Roby says.

It is clearly still a painful episode for Roby to talk about, but she won’t dismiss an icon, a woman who broke barriers for her and other female scientists. “I admire her immensely,” she says. “She’s a remarkable woman.”

Roby was called to defend her work. She stayed up all night double-checking every bit of the quality control that is at the heart of good DNA science, something she talks about often. It is critical that the reference material, in this case DNA from the sister, Lorna Bourg, was processed in a different lab or at a different time than that of the evidentiary material, the skeletal remains of her brother. Roby knew that Archie’s skeletal remains were processed long before Lorna’s DNA, so there was no possibility of contamination.

There are tears in Roby’s eyes today when she recalls standing in front of the Armed Force’s top gun of pathology and declaring, “Yes, sir, I know I’m right.” The tears don’t come from anger or sadness. They flow because a good man did the right thing at one of the more important junctures of Roby’s career. From that moment on, the Department of Defense backed her every step of the way, although it laid down a temporary moratorium on all MIA identifications that relied on mitochondrial DNA. A review board was formed that included the late Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg, and a UK forensic lab was chosen to run the battery of DNA tests a third time. 

The UK lab confirmed Roby’s findings: the remains were most likely that of Archie T. Bourg Jr.

“It was stressful for me personally,” Roby says. “And this community, it’s pretty unforgiving. If you make a mistake, it’s known.” But, in typical Roby fashion, she points out that it was an incredible experience for a young scientist, a once-shy girl from Oklahoma, to present in front of someone like Joshua Lederberg.

The moratorium lasted a year, time that Roby spent with her team quietly matching the DNA of skeletal remains of MIAs with reference samples of living relatives, so that a flood of identifications was ready for waiting families. 

She is earnestly proud to be part of a long, determined American tradition of identifying the war dead, from the simple cross pins with names that soldiers wore in the Civil War, to dog tags, to the DNA efforts now used to try to put a name to every single casualty of war. 

On what she calls “The Roby Tour of Washington, D.C.,” she sweeps people along the Vietnam Memorial, halting at the names of soldiers on the wall who were identified thanks to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, where she worked. “I have a lot of favorites,” she says. “I have one of the earliest cases using DNA identification. I can take you directly to the line and space on the wall where that is.” 

dead_03 Roby grabbed an email out of the sky when she arrived in New York to identify remains after 9/11. She now keeps it at home. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

She’s a little stymied by the public’s distrust of the government in this area. “I have worked with the FBI on the Branch Davidians. I’ve worked with the Department of Defense, with the country of Chile, and never once have I ever seen anybody try to shortcut anything. … No one has ever said, ‘Well, Rhonda, could you make that report a little more compelling?’ ”

It’s why she likes to meet with family members whenever she can. “If I can speak to a family member, and they can look me in the eyes, and they can know that I’m being honest with them, I think that goes a long way versus a government official telling them something.”

The buzzing of the saws drifts through the glass, like it’s coming down the street on a lazy Saturday. A young woman in a white lab coat on the other side of the window holds a skull with the same care she would hold a newborn baby. There is a gaping black square in the middle of the forehead. 

This means an attempt has already been made to extract DNA, but the four young women in the lab this Tuesday morning, most of them forensic analysts, will go at it again. These are the same young women who worked on the bones of eight unidentified victims of John Wayne Gacy, who murdered more than 30 young men and boys in the 1970s. The Chicago cold case stirred a frenzy of media attention for the UNT center late last year, especially after the lab’s DNA results quickly identified No. 19, so named for years because he was the 19th body dug from the grave under Gacy’s house. Now we know the name his mother gave him: William George Bundy.

Tom Dart, Chicago’s high-profile Cook County sheriff, chose the UNT lab to help clear this cold case because of its stellar reputation, the price tag (free), and a willingness to dive right in. 

“I think [the quick ID] has quite frankly shocked a lot of people up here,” Dart says. “Families understood that this was now real.” So that means even more families are queuing up to offer DNA samples, hoping for a match. Dart is a guy who has seen just about everything in his line of work, but even he seems touched by the time he spent with the Bundy family after the bombshell of the identification. “I really didn’t know how it was going to play out … [but] I cannot tell you the catharsis, that they finally had closure. I mean, it was an amazing thing to see.” 

A few of the bones spread out in the lab today—three skulls, a rib—are perhaps less notorious but no less important. They are carefully wrapped and still waiting to be placed under one of the large, clear hoods where a forensic analyst will use a Stryker or Dremel saw to cut and sand a tiny piece. That fragment will be handed off to another analyst a few feet away, who will use bleach, water, and ethanol to clean the bone before it is pulverized. The DNA is extracted from this fine powder. The four women move in a comfortable rhythm while a tech constantly sprays down surfaces to prevent contamination. 

Today’s bones, about 30 of them, have arrived here from fields and medical examiners’ offices in Missouri, Alabama, Ohio, and beyond. Sometimes, the bones are found in a field by a farmer. Sometimes, the lab is trying to confirm a “warm hit,” a case where a medical examiner is fairly sure who it is, based on circumstances and other evidence, but wants DNA confirmation.

Strangely, the skull is not a favorite with scientists when extracting mitochondrial DNA. If they have a choice, Roby says, they prefer long, dense bones, like femurs, which generally offer a longer string of DNA. But the center has become known all over the world for extracting mitochondrial DNA from old and degraded human remains when no one else can. “We are committed,” Roby says. If the scientists can’t get a full sequence from the first bone fragment, they try again. And again. And sometimes again.

Except for the buzzing of saw against bone, this state-of-the-art, sixth-floor facility is quiet. 

Somewhere down the hall, a vault holds a cache of bones, teeth, clothing, and blood. 

Rhonda Roby calls them “my moments.”

They can last a minute, an hour, a weekend. It’s the time she carries a precious secret: the identity of someone lost. “You hold in your hands the data, and, by golly, you know. That’s him. Those moments are very private for me.”

There are usually lag times in making any identification official. Roby and other forensic scientists work long, strange hours, and every identification through DNA must be reviewed independently and confirmed by a second analyst. In real life, it is the job of the coroner or medical examiner to make the official ID. Forensic scientists are responsible for making “associations” and handing over the probability, somewhere in the 99th percentile, that they’ve matched the DNA of skeletal remains with DNA provided by a family member.

At a lunch, Roby met some family members who were active in pushing for proper identification of those slaughtered in Pinochet’s coup. It dawned on her as she was being introduced that they were the family of someone she’d just identified in the lab. But it wasn’t her job to tell. “I am just thrilled beyond belief that they are getting ready to go into a meeting to tell people how important it is that the government still needs to work on these cases, that they just want their loved ones back. And I want to jump across the table and hug them and tell them, ‘It’s done!’ ” 

On a winter day in Chile while she was working the Patio 29 grave site, Roby accomplished another goal she had set for herself. Long-suffering family members were watching as Roby and others carefully exhumed bones from the crypts and burial sites of Pinochet’s victims. Roby needed a break. Dressed in a Tyvek suit to prevent contamination, she pulled off her hood and began walking toward a Chilean judge to share some information. A relative of a victim stopped her. 

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for everything you are doing.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” she replied, in Spanish, and kept walking, realizing that those few words meant something huge to her.

After several minutes with the judge, she returned to the man’s side. “I told him: ‘I just want to thank you for talking to me. I don’t have a lot of contact with the families. We will do everything we can do.’ He said, ‘I know you are.’ It was a brief conversation, but … I wanted the family to know me, not know me through an interpreter.”

Roby has wrapped up the final details of her work in Chile—processing bones, reviewing the DNA’s peaks and valleys, matching tomb numbers and grave sites, putting names to the misidentified and providing comfort to cynical, grieving families who had been waiting for answers for more than 30 years.

Who knows what big case will knock on her door next? In the meantime, in her other job as a UNT Health Science Center associate professor, she nurtures the next round of American scientists. That includes two top-notch Ph.D. students analyzing mitochondrial DNA with the hope of solving some of the riddles of prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s. She and grad student Nicole Phillips just received a $100,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Association, with one of the hopes that their work could help lead to earlier diagnosis. “They teach me,” Roby says of her students. “Every day, I learn something new from them.”

Pauline Roby, the woman who gave birth to this scientist 49 years ago and is still holding down the homestead in Oklahoma, says her daughter has always been this way. Always compassionate. Always looking for solutions to problems. Always fixing things, including the old, beat-up British car, a Morris Minor, that she drove in high school. 

That’s a good clue as to why a prototype for a bone-processing machine Roby designed sits in her garage at this minute, waiting for the $40,000 she needs to fund the TCU engineering student interested in building it for her.

“When she was a child,” Pauline Roby says, “I would always tell her, ‘Rhonda, you’re so smart.’ She didn’t like me to say that.” One day, little Rhonda Roby arrived home from seventh grade, and her mom said it again, maybe one time too many.

Her extremely smart daughter turned to her.

“Mom, I’m not smart,” she said impatiently. “I care.”

Julia Heaberlin’s first novel, Playing Dead, was published by Ballantine Books in May. She lives in Fort Worth.