Dr. Philipps leaves WHS to help solve crimes in Union County

After 16 years of teaching Biology 1, General Biology, AP Biology and Forensics at WHS, Dr. Dana Philipps will be starting her new job as a genetic genealogist for the Union County Prosecutor’s Office Forensics Lab in Westfield. 

According to Philipps, the lab received federal grants which allowed for an expansion of genetic genealogy. The director contacted Philipps to take a job in the genetic genealogy department, and she realized that this was “a once in a lifetime opportunity” and that she “couldn’t turn it down.”

In the lab, Philipps will help solve cold case homicides (unsolved investigations) using DNA samples to search for genetic matches. She will then build family trees using her analysis. This will help detectives narrow down potential persons of interest and get more DNA samples to confirm her analysis. 

“About three years ago, I began volunteering to help other people find their biological parents. It’s extremely satisfying to be able to give people the answers they’ve been waiting for. I offered to volunteer for the lab because I knew I had the skill set that could help families of victims of violent crimes get justice for their loved ones,” said Philipps.

Philipps’ interest in biology and forensic science began in high school. While in the 4-H Rabbit Club, where kids and teens are able to do hands-on projects, she taught herself coat color genetics. An English teacher assigned a family tree project and that’s when she “got hooked on genealogy.” 

Some of her family members were also involved in law enforcement. Her sister began working as a DNA analyst in New York City at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and her uncle was a police officer for her entire life until retiring as the chief of the Parsippany police. 

Recently, Philipps has dabbled even further into genealogical research. “About 10 years ago, I began [studying] genetic genealogy to figure out some family mysteries that couldn’t be solved with a traditional paper trail—like finding the birth mother of my great great grandmother who was adopted in 1882.”

Out of college, Phillipps began her career as a medical writer, creating educational programs for doctors and nurses. However, being a writer requires traveling which wasn’t a good fit for her or her family. She then decided to look for teaching jobs and found an opening for a long term substitute teacher at WHS and “the rest was history,” according to Phillipps.

Something she will miss the most about teaching forensics is how engaged her students are. “As upperclassmen, they are choosing [to take Forensic Science] because they have a genuine interest in the subject. Forensics is very multidisciplinary so there is something for everyone— biology, chemistry, physics, psychology and much more.” 

Many of the students and teachers appreciate her and her passion for teaching. Senior Abby Bebel said, “It has been really fun to learn about the differences between forensic science in movies and in reality. I think Dr. Philipps did a great job teaching us about the CSI effect and how what we see on television isn’t accurate to real life investigators. Our entire class will miss her when she leaves in February.”

Colleague and Science Teacher Stephen Boyle said, “Dr. Philipps is incredibly intelligent and very creative. We worked together developing labs, activities and the Bio 1 curriculum. It was great working with her. I am sad to see her go, but I am also very happy for her.”

While Philipps will miss her students and colleagues at WHS, she is excited to be starting her new job at the Union County Prosecutor’s Office right after midterms.