Virginia Maxwell, University of New Haven associate professor of forensics, said graduate thesis proposals typically run about 30 pages. When Andrew Koutrakos arrived with his, it was 60 pages long.
“It was thoughtful, deliberate and so well-planned,” she said. It was a glimpse of what was to follow – a 125-page thesis, a 3.8 grade point average and his being named to the Dean’s List each semester throughout his graduate studies in forensic science. What made it all the more remarkable is that Koutrakos did so while working full time at the Southbury, Conn. Shop Rite, where he has worked for years.
“Ours is not a graduate program designed for a person working full time,” Maxwell said. “It’s an extremely rigorous program, yet Andrew was working a 40-hour week to pay for his education. He was a most dedicated student and he has a great mind for research.”
Koutrakos, of Shelton, Conn., recently was awarded the prestigious $25,000 J. Edgar Hoover Foundation Scientific Scholarship, named in honor of the creator of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and long considered the father of modern law enforcement in the United States.
The J. Edgar Hoover Foundation staff will formally present Koutrakos with the scholarship at 3 p.m. on Aug. 29 in a ceremony at the Henry C. Lee Institute of Forensic Science on the UNH campus. In January, Koutrakos will begin course work at the University of Verona in Italy as part of a three-year international Ph.D. program in legal medicine and forensic science. UNH participates in an exchange of students and faculty with the University of Verona, supporting a three-year international Ph.D. degree in forensic medicine and sciences granted by Verona.
The scholarship, Koutrakos said, eases some of the financial burden and lends credence to his research. “It’s such a huge honor,” he said. “I want to live up to it. I want to work to expand the frontiers of forensic science.”
“No one deserves it more,” Maxwell said. “He’s not only a great student but a great person and one of the most understated people you’ll ever meet, the kind who thanks his professors for teaching him.”
Maxwell said the national award speaks to the high caliber of students enrolling in the graduate program, including undergraduates from Ivy League colleges and other top-tier universities.
Koutrakos will continue to work on his thesis in Verona. He wants to find a way to reduce the false positives that can occur in workplace drug testing because of contamination.
Koutrakos also will study ways to identify the latest designer drugs sold on the street on both sides of the Atlantic. The University of Verona is on the forefront of that research, and Koutrakos wants to be part of that work because “synthetic drugs are being created faster than they can be identified. They are marketed to young people and are shown to have disastrous effects,” he said.
Koutrakos has wanted to work in forensics since he was 12 years old. At a Boy Scout camp event, he heard a police officer talk about modern crime fighting, and right then he knew what he wanted to do.
“The criminalistics branch of forensic science represents a combination of the hard science that I am so fond of and the ability to make a meaningful impact on the lives of members of the community who are affected by crime,” he said.
“The field seemed like an ideal choice for me because it allowed me to explore my passion for technology, science and helping people.”
Koutrakos dove into science in high school and as an undergraduate at UConn, where he majored in chemistry and structural biology. He chose UNH for its renowned forensic science program. “Everyone at UNH is so experience-focused and all my professors have had long and storied careers in their fields,” he said. “It was everything I could have hoped for.”
He will work full time through the fall and leave for Italy in January. “I can’t wait to get into the lab,” he said.