By Kathy Mellott The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.
One of the region's best kept secrets may well be Universal Forensics Corp., tucked in the second floor of the renovated former J.J. Newberry store on West Main Street in the heart of Somerset Borough.
Another well-kept secret in the Cambria-Somerset region may be Julie Cramer, the entrepreneur behind Universal Forensics and the 10 well-paying jobs the DNA lab has created.
Cramer's story is one of the true American dream -- someone down on her luck who refused to sit back and hope for a safety net.
Her philosophy is simple and one she has followed for years. The late Zig Ziglar, motivational speaker, makes it all real clear, according to Cramer, who is eager to credit others for her success.
"You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want," she said, quoting Ziglar, who died in 2012.
Cramer worked for 28 years for the chairman of the Coleman/Fleetwood trailer company in Rockwood, where she focused on marketing -- wining and dining clients, traveling "all over the world" promoting what she believed to be the best recreational vehicles on the market.
But when the company closed the Rockwood plant in 2008, Cramer found herself, along with hundreds of others, pushed into the ranks of the unemployed.
"I was devastated. I didn't know what I was going to do," Cramer said late last week in an interview at her office at Universal Forensics. "My career was ended. I'd never been laid off before and I really ran the range of emotions."
But determined to land on her feet, Cramer and her mother, Marianne Shurtz, renovated a Rockwood building and opened the Gingerbread Bed & Breakfast.
The B&B, which Cramer personally ran for a year, continues to be a popular spot for those using the Great Allegheny Passage trail.
But in 2009 she threw herself back into sales and marketing, this time working for GFI Laboratory, a DNA testing facility in the Rockwood area.
It was at about that time that she renovated a commercial property and established Tracks Country Dollar Store with the intent of bringing a little convenience to the Rockwood area.
When GFI closed in June 2012, Cramer had enough and she decided it was time to determine her own destiny.
"When the company was closing, I wondered about what I was going to do now, and I wondered what these folks were going to do," Cramer said.
"My husband and I saw an opportunity. We saw there was a void to be filled."
While Dan Cramer, her husband of 27 years, offers strong moral support, he spends his time as a heavy equipment operator working out of town.
Using her retirement fund and private financing through local banks, Cramer established Universal Forensics' office, which occupies much of the top floor of the former department store, purchased high-tech equipment and went about developing a market base.
That was last summer. Since that time she has brought on board technicians with bachelor's degrees, all of whom worked at GFI.
Today, she has 10 employees, including Zach Gaskin, a Somerset County resident who is the company's chief scientific officer.
Gaskin plays a key role in which he looks for ways to grow the company while expanding its expertise with a hard focus on quality control.
"It's not Maury Povich," Gaskin said, referring to the show that discloses children's parentage on national television. "We get a lot of parents seeking information, but it's not just, who's your daddy."
While parent DNA testing is a part of the lab's business, much of it covers broader relationship testing, including sibling matching and issues with adoption, Gaskin said.
An increasing part of the business is international work with Universal Forensic doing testing for embassies worldwide that are dealing with people hoping to emigrate to the United States.
On Thursday, a stack of outgoing DNA results included mailings to Monrovia, Liberia, and Cairo.
The lab can and has tested just about anything in searching for and typing DNA for a variety of companies and people, Gaskin said.
It also has done testing for defense lawyers seeking to dispel DNA evidence against clients in criminal cases.
An important part of that type of DNA testing is proving that you have the credentials to carry off higher tech determinations.
Universal Forensics is the only lab in Pennsylvania to be certified and accredited by the American Association of Blood Banks, an industry group that sets stringent standards for DNA testing.
It also is the only DNA testing laboratory in the world now performing a 42-marker test needed to provide the most accurate testing available, Cramer said.
But Cramer is not willing to rest on past achievements.
She hopes to grow the company by landing DNA testing contracts including those involving the state and expanding the international testing market.
"We have a lot to do. My plans are big," Cramer said.
"But I have to say, we have a lot of good employees and they make it happen."
Incidentally, when Cramer is not at her DNA lab, she works every night and weekend at her dollar store, because, she said, it's something the Rockwood community needs.
As for her "free" time, she is a Make-A-Wish volunteer, president of the Rockwood Merchants Association and makes wine.