Kentucky State University associate professor of psychology and sociology Dr. Mara Merlino has been awarded grant funding of $728,615 from the National Institute of Justice for her new project, “Cognitive Human Factors and Forensic Document Examiner Methods and Procedures.”


Dr. Mara Merlino displays her 1,450-page research report she submitted in 2010, when she was given $467,000 by National Institute of Justice. This is her second grant funded by NIJ.

“This will allow us to expand and continue our previous studies in forensic document examination,” she says.

“But this in particular (for the research) deals with the examination of handwriting, hand printing and questioned documents,” she explains. “As technology increases more and more, the examination of questioned documents can deal with ink chemistry and the characteristics of printers. In fact, I know a guy who is an astounding expert on typewriters. He can look at a piece of typewritten stuff and he can tell you the make and model of whatever machine produced it.”

The National Institute of Justice’s projects are selected for their possible impact on society; their intellectual merit; and how they can impact the science workforce, Merlino says. KSU is especially attractive to the agency because the University provides training to minority students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields in an underserved population, which is an important issue for the federal government.

“These are very competitive grants especially for today’s budget,” Merlino says. “The ability to get a grant this size from the National Institute of Justice is really a significant achievement for the University.”

The grant is vital to the KSU because it will allow students to excel in research, she emphasizes.

This grant follows earlier funding that Merlino was rewarded by the National Institute of Justice. In 2010, KSU received a little more than $467,000. The final research report, containing over 1,450 pages of information and research results, was submitted to the National Institute of Justice in November 2014, and is available for download on the NIJ website.

The research report describes findings from a survey of forensic document examiners about their training and education, results of several experimental protocols in which gaze patterns of professionals and lay participants were recorded using eye-tracking equipment while the participants determined whether the signature specimens were genuine or simulated.

“We had mounds and mounds of data. We had 119 signatures and had eight different analyses,” Merlino says. “Our NIJ program officer joked that we won the prize for what was possibly the longest report ever written by anybody in a project. It was research on steroids.”

“We were lucky to be awarded the first grant,” Merlino says. “Having completing that first project successfully at Kentucky State put us in a good position to do more of the same.”