In Memoriam: Noelle Umback

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Sources: Marie M. Samples, MS, and Desirée A. Reid, BS

Noelle J. Umback, PhD
December 20, 1969 – February 15, 2020

The excitement of the recent AAFS meeting in Anaheim was tempered by the news that Noelle J. Umback, Fellow of the Criminalistics Section and the incoming Chair, passed away the previous Saturday evening, February 15. She lost her battle with breast cancer that she had valiantly fought for the past few years. Her burial service was held in her hometown of Lemmon, SD, on Monday, February 24, 2020.

Noelle Joreen Umback was born on December 20, 1969, and was named “Noelle” to celebrate the Christmas season. She graduated as salutatorian from Lemmon High School with honors in 1988, received her BS in Professional Chemistry from South Dakota State University (SDSU) in 1992, and earned her PhD from Colorado State University in Inorganic Chemistry in 2000.

Noelle joined the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) Department of Forensic Biology in 2000, and was able to turn her more analytical chemistry background toward molecular biology. She progressed from analyst to supervisor, becoming a key member of the team that worked diligently on the remains from the 9/11 attacks and the crash of flight AA587. She was proud to have contributed to providing closure for families who lost loved ones in both of those tragedies. Sadly, exposure to Ground Zero and/or tissue samples from 9/11 may have contributed to her metastatic breast cancer diagnosis.

She ultimately dedicated herself to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), serving as the Local DNA Index System (LDIS) Administrator of one of the largest local DNA databases in the country. Having been in that role for well over a decade, she instructed hundreds of analysts about the use of CODIS and was responsible for thousands of DNA profiles each year. She served on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI’s) Missing Persons Working Group, helping develop policies and practices to assist in the identification of human remains through the use of the database.

Noelle took her professional development seriously, joining the AAFS early in her career and serving as moderator, presenter, and workshop participant on her way to Fellow status. She served two terms as a Commissioner on the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), as well as Program Co-Chair, Program Chair, and Secretary of the Criminalistics Section. Noelle could frequently be found in the company of another Criminalistics member, Desirée Reid. They enjoyed attending many of the President’s Receptions together and were known to light up the dance floor on many occasions.

Noelle also believed in sharing her knowledge widely and frequently had speaking engagements addressing and educating a wide array of audiences about forensics, ranging from high school and college students and the National Youth Science Camp, to colleagues, detectives, and attorneys. She enjoyed sharing her passion for all things related to forensics.

In addition to forensic science, Noelle also enjoyed playing softball and joined the OCME Co-Ed Central Park team as a pitcher in 2001. This fostered the friendship she had with Desirée, who was also a member of the team as the resident catcher. A championship trophy resides in the OCME as a result of all the great team work! Another of Noelle’s favorite things was the beach. She spent many weekends with Desirée at her house on the Jersey shore. Sun and fun were the only requirements, no work talk. Noelle was an avid cat lover and adopted two brothers, Leo and Fritz, and gave them a loving home. She missed them when she had to travel and was ecstatic to come home to her babies at the end of her trips. She was devastated when Fritz became gravely ill.

Noelle was also a skillful knitter, and those of us lucky enough to receive one of her knitted DNA double-helix scarves will treasure them.

She will be greatly missed by her colleagues at the lab and in the wider forensic community, as well as by her friends, family, and Leo.

Noelle’s family has created the Noelle Umback Forensic Fund Endowment at SDSU. Donations can be sent to or checks may be made payable to the SDSU Foundation and mailed to the following address: SDSU Foundation, Lohr Building, 815 Medary Ave, Brookings, SD 57006.