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UCL CFS at ANZFSS 2016

Ruth MMorgan29 September 2016

We have been in Auckland this last week, attending the Australian and New Zealand Forensic Science Society Symposium that runs every two years. It is a real highlight in the forensic science calendar, with a diverse group of delegates and really excellent quality talks sharing current research and practice across a wide range of fields from Crime Scene Investigation, Science and Justice, Chemical criminalistics, Education and Training, Biological – casework DNA, Pathology and Forensic Medicine, Botany, Fingerprints, Anthropology and Archaeology to name but a few.

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We have had an excellent week, meeting other forensic scientists, sharing our research and hearing latest findings and approaches.  It is also an amazing opportunity to get insights into what is happening in forensic science in the rest of the world.  It has been a busy week with 19 talks from UCL researchers and 2 poster presentations, as well as meetings with colleagues and meeting new ones, but it has been an inspirational week too.  It is fantastic to see the research being carried out in this field, research that is addressing the hard questions we face, and research that is paving the way forward.

One of the aspects that was particularly interesting were the papers presented on how we develop our research culture. There was a clear call for us as a community of professionals, researchers, policy makers, and lawyers to be developing ways to ensure that we approach forensic science holistically and with an appreciation of the roots of forensic science in problem solving. The idea of recapturing the crime scene as a scientific endeavour rather than approaching it as a mechanical process is a powerful one with all that means for developing valuable research, best practice and effective policy.

Thank you to ANZFSS for a great conference and looking forward to incorporating lots of what we’ve learnt into our new research projects, and to being back in two years time with new research findings to contribute.

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“Mission Decipher”: Public Engagement in the Forensic Sciences

Sian ESmith21 July 2016

Last month I was lucky enough to work with a school from Birmingham, the Selly Oak Trust School on behalf of Forensic Outreach. We spent an hour and a half together learning a bit about the history of cryptography and then on to solving mysteries! They made their own enigma machines, translated coded World War II messages, and reconstructed shredded documents. We definitely had some budding cryptanalysts that day – they solved the mysteries with flying colours!

But why is science outreach and public engagement so important?

In the early 19th Century, public lectures lead to the popularisation of science. Nowadays, scientific fields, like forensic science and forensic anthropology, are popular storylines for TV shows. This is great because it opens people’s minds to the opportunities and fascinating technologies that we use. But perhaps…they are slightly exaggerated sometimes. Sadly, our days aren’t filled with witty one liners, steely stares, and dramatically removing our sunglasses (as fun as that would be).

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These shows do a great job at demonstrating the real-world applications of the forensic sciences: using bones to identify who someone was and how they died, or using DNA to solve a sexual assault case for example. Science needs to be more integrated into our culture and media is a great way to do it.

Public engagement, or outreach, are great for both the audience and the researchers. Research Councils UK emphasise that engaging with a non-specialist audience can greatly improve your communication skills; this is definitely something that I have experienced as a facilitator. I feel more comfortable discussing my research at events and in finding ways to get the public engaged with the topic. It is a chance for kids and adults to get hands on experience with the tools and knowledge we use in our jobs. Along the way we also hope to inspire kids and young adults to consider the different career opportunities they can have.

For me, engaging with the public provides a guide for making my work more impactful. 3D imaging and forensic science both gain a lot of media attention, but more importantly the public have a significant stake in their success. Being able to present one of my research projects to a lay audience is a similar skill to presenting evidence for a jury.

The stake the public have in science is also our ability to understand and debate on issues impactful to our lives. For example, are you pro- or anti-stem cell research? Are you ready for self-driving cars? Scientific development relied equally on the researchers and the public. Without public interest there is no development, or funding, or support. Elizabeth Marincola described science without engagement as “like a tree falling in a forest with no one there to hear it; it may happen but no one will care.

Who are Forensic Outreach?

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I have been working with an organisation called Forensic Outreach recently. The UCL Centre for the Forensic Sciences has enjoyed a long standing working relationship with them. They provide public engagement programmes, events (e.g. late evenings) and interactive apps to promote public interest in the work of major museums and city attractions. They work with national museums, charities, and local schools – you can check out some of their previous work here. The facilitators are a mix of PhD students, researchers, and practitioners; it’s a really fun way for us to bring our research and the subjects that we love to really wide audiences. They also run an online magazine with articles on current issues and a history of forensic science cases.

Keep up to date Forensic Outreach on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

 

Follow us on Twitter:  @UCLForensicSciences@sianysmith

Fingerprinting – Where Chemistry and Forensic Science Can Come Together

WilliamPeveler26 May 2014

Researchers at Hanyang University in Seoul have recently published work in Nature Communications describing a new polymeric material they have developed, which is capable of mapping sweat pores in the human fingerprint at high resolution (doi). The polymer changes colour and becomes fluorescent when exposed to moisture (hydrochromic), even at low concentrations, and thus when a finger mark is deposited on a sample of the material, a point pattern fluorescent image is generated which can be recorded with fluorescent microscopy. The researchers go on to compare a selection of these to ninhydrin-stained latent marks, also exhibiting pore structure, to show a good match. They argue in their paper that the analysis of sweat pores in marks, rather than the typically used ridge structures, means that an incomplete or indistinct mark can still be used to generate a match if sweat pores are available. They neglect to discuss, however, the availability of sweat pore location information in lifted marks; and all their analysed marks were deposited directly onto the polymer itself or digitally scanned, rather than a more realistic examination of real world marks against their material as a reference.

It is exciting to see work with a strong forensic component featuring in such a high impact publication, beyond the normal forensic science journals, and this is partly due to the high quality chemistry content regarding the design and synthesis of their new polymeric material, and an in depth analysis of its hydrochromic properties. There is a good chance that this work will be widely covered in the popular-science and lay media too, due to the all-important CSI effect (e.g. here). However, are the results reported actually important forensically – or are they merely a handle to boost a good supramolecular chemistry paper to being a superstar nature paper? As the Korean authors admit, the materials they describe are not entirely novel; this class of polymers was first posited for mark development by an Australian group led by Tahtouh in 2011 (doi). However this initial research was published in Forensic Science International, where no doubt it escaped the notice of much of the chemical sciences and of the wider establishment, despite its forensic rigour in investigating the application of these polymers as mark developers on a variety of surfaces.

So maybe there are two messages that can be taken from this paper. Firstly, the mapping of sweat pores within finger marks may be an important part of dactyloscopy in the future, with the advent of new materials such as these allowing easy collection of sweat pore information.

However, a second message to take away might be that; if, as a forensic scientist you’ve stumbled across what you feel might be the next big thing, maybe get together with a chemist/physicist/etc. and big up the background science, and offer it to a journal beyond the forensic sphere. For example FSI has an impact factor of ~2.3 whereas Angewandte Chemie Int. Ed. scores ~13.7, and as evidenced by a recent spate of fingerprinting related papers they have published, the latter loves a good forensic science article. The chemists carrying out this fundamental research into novel development agents and materials often do not understand the intricacies and limitations of day-to-day practitioner case work, and the forensic scientists working on minor improvements to their well honed but basic techniques often do not look at the high-level theoretical work going on to further their ideas –it’s time to get the two together and then maybe there could be a lot more Nature papers on forensic science.

Many thanks to Helen Earwaker for informative discussion. Lee et al. 2014 “Hydrochromic conjugated polymers for human sweat pore mapping”. Nature Comms, 5, 3736 – is available as an open access paper from dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms4736.