Campus Life

Aggies Can Vote To Award A Crime-Solving Texas A&M Grad

Pollen analysis expert Andrew Laurence is nominated for a ‘Sammie’ Award.
By Keith Randall, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications June 23, 2020

photo of andrew laurence looking through microscope
Aggie Andrew Laurence is an expert in identifying pollen grains that can point to the location of a crime.

Courtesy photo


A Texas A&M University graduate who helped solve a horrific crime in the Boston area has been nominated for one of the U.S. government’s highest awards.

Andrew Laurence is an expert in finding pollen grains in materials that can often lead to knowing the approximate location of where a crime may have occurred. He has been named a top five finalist for the 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals People’s Choice Winner by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The awards, commonly called the “Sammies,” are known as the “Oscars” of government service. They recognize excellence in the federal workforce and inspire other talented and dedicated individuals to go into public service.

For their work, Laurence and co-worker Shannon Ferguson have been selected as Emerging Leaders finalists, a category that recognizes the significant contributions of federal professionals under the age of 35.

They are both pollen analysis experts in the federal government’s only forensic palynology program, which is the study of spores and pollen grains. Laurence and Ferguson use pollen and spores to provide critical clues to law enforcement that can either prove or disprove investigative and intelligence leads.

His most famous case occurred a few years ago when he was asked by Boston police if he could give them any information about Baby Doe, an infant who was found dead and placed in a trash bag in Boston Harbor. Police sent Laurence the infant’s clothes and he found 30 different pollen types, all of them native to the Northeast and two specifically to the Boston area, meaning the child was no doubt from there. It resulted in finding the killers of the infant.

The information was critical since all other leads were pointing to locations outside of the Boston area. It’s that type of work that make Laurence and Ferguson worthy of their nomination, according to their superiors.

“We are beyond proud of Dr. Laurence and Dr. Ferguson,” said William A. Ferrara, executive assistant commissioner, Operations Support, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“The ‘Sammies’ are highly coveted awards in the federal government. As nominees in the Emerging Leaders category, Drs. Laurence and Ferguson are recognized for providing critical information to help law enforcement solve hundreds of drug smuggling cases and other crimes by analyzing microscopic pollen grains. Not very many people would think of palynologists as crime solvers, but their unique skillset allows them to determine where drugs are produced and the travel histories of crime victims — a specialty very few can do.”

Interested individuals can vote to help Laurence and Ferguson secure the 2020 People’s Choice honor that will be based on votes received by June 26, 7:59 p.m. CT. A vote can be submitted once every 24 hours.

“The award highlights the important role U.S. Customs and Border Protection plays supporting U. S. law enforcement,” Laurence, who works out of the CBP’s Houston’s office, said.

“Shannon and I have worked on over 400 cases, CBP and otherwise. We have worked on three cases for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children that resulted in an identification. We are not usually kept in the loop once we complete an analysis, so I do not know if our other case work helped to identify a victim. However, the same agencies keep sending us work, so we must be doing something right.

“Winning the competition would mean that Shannon and I are doing something positive for the world. But to be honest, the sheer fact that we are finalists shows that our work is important,” Laurence said.

While at Texas A&M, Laurence’s specialty in archaeology was reconstructing ancient diets. He has always had an interest in human-land interaction, palynology and forensics, and said he viewed forensics as “archaeology of the present.”

One of his advisors was renowned anthropology professor Vaughn Bryant, who recommended Laurence to CBP personnel who eventually hired him once he received his doctorate in 2013.

“I would say our work is extremely interesting,” Laurence said. “Every day is a new challenge and we get to work on samples from all over the world.”

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