What is your current job role and what does this involve?
I’m currently Director of Undergraduate Studies for the forensic science programmes at the University of Kent. The role involves helping to lead the forensic science programs in the School of Physical Sciences. My job is primarily one of teaching and I’m involved in the delivery of modules across all years. Additionally the role involves some administrative responsibilities in order to continue to develop the students’ experience at the University. My ambition is to develop students to the best of their abilities; to share with them the very latest news and events affecting forensic science and, above all to produce good quality graduates with a focus on employability. I hope that some prospective students will consider studying with us in Kent. I make sure that we make the most effective use of social media and have a very active Facebook page which I post to most days. Please try to take a look and perhaps like the page and maybe keep up-to-date with some of the events at home and abroad. The page can be accessed here and I hope you like some of the content.
What has been the highlight of your career to date?
I suppose it was being made an OBE for services to forensic science in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list of 2008. Although the finer detail of honours nominations are not shared with the recipients – I very much suspect it was perhaps for some of the work I lead whilst at the Home Office. This was looking at the so-called cold cases and using the most up-to-date DNA technology to resurrect these cases and bring closure to victims. I think that over 100 or so rapists were convicted by these and other initiatives which gives one a sense of immense satisfaction knowing that justice has been served. At the same time, we were able to develop good practice in this area and share this internationally. Working at the University of Kent provides a fabulous opportunity to share some of the good practices with the forensic scientists of the future. I hope you’ll take a look at our site, accessed here.
Additionally I am very proud of my Fellowship of the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences awarded in 2014. Having moved into academia, I’m particularly pleased we have been able to generate students’ involvement in their professional body and get them engaged from the beginning of their study. For example, at the University of Kent, we’re able to offer free membership of the professional body to all our students from year one all the way through their studies. This helps us to engage with the society and ensure that students are provided the opportunity to attend conferences and develop themselves as their studies progress. I think the block membership idea of engagement has been a highlight of my time on Council for the Chartered Society.
Conversely, what have been some of the biggest challenges?
Looking back – I think this would hark back to my time working operationally as a Crime Scene Manager. The work was incredibly demanding both in terms of its demands on family/social life and of course the very sensitive nature of the work itself. Please spare a thought for those who work operationally both in the laboratory setting and also at the crime scene. Whilst the work may appear glamorous and appealing – nevertheless it is immensely hard work and of course has to be conducted with immense precision and attention to detail if disasters are to be avoided. Thankfully I survived my operational period without any/too much drama but the saying I always recall was “… you’re only as good as your last job”. In these challenging times – particularly let’s not forget the forensic scientists working tirelessly in the laboratory; seldom gaining recognition but nevertheless absolutely vital to the effectiveness of our criminal justice system.
How do you feel the field of forensic science has changed throughout the time you have been involved in it?
This must really be the introduction of automated fingerprint databases and of course the DNA database in 1995. Looking back it’s hard to imagine the 1,000 or so crime scenes I examined personally each year and the seemingly low return on the ‘fingerprint investment’. Truthfully – at the end of each year I could honestly count a handful of good quality fingerprint identifications made under the manual system. The advent of automated fingerprint databases absolutely revolutionised this and of course made both volume crime and major crime examinations much more fruitful in terms of fingerprint identifications. Reflectively though, this significant ramp-up in throughput has not always been matched by the detective’s ability to convert these fingerprint identifications into offences that are detected. The volume of fingerprint identifications produced by fingerprint experts often outstrips the ability to ‘action’ these in real time. In this sense, one advancement has led to another challenge. In order to get a sense of the contribution forensic science brings to criminal justice; let’s just reflect for a moment on the NPIA study in (I think) 2009. This study examined murders in England and Wales between the years 2009 and 2010. The findings of this report suggested that the contribution of forensic science was significantly greater than had previously been reported. For example, DNA being used in more than 95% of murder enquiries; fingerprints used in greater than 72% of murder enquiries; footwear used in greater than 35% of murder enquiries. I really hope that the value of forensic science is not undervalued in our current age of shrinking police budgets and austerity.
The second of course has to be DNA and the significant advances in sensitivity. Sadly, where we once led the world in DNA technology we now, to some extent, lag behind. For example, only recently the UK has changed to the DNA 17 multiplex; just at the time some others are perhaps moving to more discriminating DNA chemistry. I recall how the early DNA test required DNA around the size of a 50p piece and of course many of the examinations we undertook at the time were not successful. Of course this doesn’t mean to say they cannot be revisited and the case reinvestigated. It’s interesting to reflect that the new DNA test requires around 80 cells which is in the order of 500 pg. of starting material. Perhaps just think of what this means for a moment. If we consider that a single sugar crystal is in the order of 1 milligram (mg). Dividing this by 1,000 would give us a microgram (µg), further dividing by 1,000 to give us a nanogram (ng) and further dividing this by 1,000 gives us a picogram (pg); a far cry from the days of 50p piece. Of course this brings with it other challenges in terms of increased sensitivity and I hope these dramatic improvements will not be marred by poor crime scene practices leading to contaminated results.
Looking to the future one can’t fail to be impressed by the new Rapid Hit DNA technology. This self-contained and rapid DNA processing enables profiles to be turned around in around 90 minutes. This will undoubtedly revolutionise the speed at which DNA profiles can be obtained and perhaps enable samples to be searched within the custody time limits. Of course, this speedier DNA process will require matches to be actioned in real time and hence will bring some challenges for the police service.
Forensic science provisions in the UK have been under much debate since the closure of the FSS. What do you feel is the greatest issue in forensic science in the UK at present?
I’m not entirely sure it’s changed necessarily for the better. Formally I worked at the Forensic Science Service and hence appreciate, with pride, the contribution of all forensic scientists over the years. Accepting the economy of the age and of course without passing any judgement, we might nevertheless want to reflect a moment on this. The Forensic Science Service has been closed and I sense that we will not see the likes of this type of organisation again in the public sector – certainly in my lifetime. What’s done – is done but there is perhaps a concern that the shrinking forensic marketplace may ever increasingly make it less viable for some suppliers of forensic services. Likewise the access and availability to forensic testing from the defence perspective is perhaps a little worrying to say the least. In particular, fibre analysis is often seen as costly/unnecessarily when compared against other forensic science techniques. Nevertheless I can’t help but think we miss two major points here. The first of these is that we should never underestimate the exculpatory value of forensic science from the defence point of view. Depending upon the details of the case – the presence or absence of forensic material may support either the prosecution or defence. One might share some sense of unease that forensic submissions are put together (and of course paid for) primarily by the police service. Without doubt, colleagues in the ‘service’ do an outstanding job – protecting us all and keeping us safe. Nevertheless (as one who has had some responsibility for constructing these cases in the past) I wonder how eager I would have been to have submitted materials to the laboratory which might not be seen to further the prosecution.
Without wishing to be alarmist – the current situation might appear far from ideal. Accepting everything which I’ve said already about the tightness of police budgets – nevertheless my sense is that we may be sleepwalking towards a breakdown in the external market for forensic science provision. I feel that the decade may be marked by some significant miscarriages of justice based perhaps not on what is submitted for forensic testing but what isn’t or what is examined inappropriately. Naturally if the items are screened out (from the prosecutions perspective) then they are not submitted right from the very outset. Perhaps my advice to those regulating forensic science might be to look for what is not submitted as much as determining the quality of what is.
How do you feel about the amount of research being conducted in forensic fields of work?
Previously of course the FSS and others rather took the lead. Whilst there are some rather promising indications that research is continuing I think we have to deal with realities. Forensic providers in the UK may continue to find it difficult to fund research to the level we previously enjoyed. I think it’s unlikely to see them investing to the level previously. There are some green shoots here and there but nothing really which resembles the significant – several million pounds per annum budget we had perhaps become used to. Of course that doesn’t mean to say that research won’t continue both at home and abroad and time will tell I guess.
Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for those pursuing a career in forensic science?
I think two points sum it up. Firstly – be interested and secondly work hard. Try to have your career path mapped out to the best of your ability. I think it’s going to be ever increasingly important for students to have a good idea of what they want to do as early as possible. Not only are universities producing many good graduates each year but also job opportunities may not necessarily appear at once. Try not to be disappointed and pessimistic and keep trying if you want to pursue a career. You may find that you have to take a lesser role in order to get a shoo-in and so perhaps be a little realistic at least in the early days. Having decided what type of career path you are seeking to follow – choose a university course which will help you to get a foot in. For example, those seeking roles in forensic investigation may be drawn more to these types of courses. Those who would seek a more laboratory-based or traditional forensic science role would be best advised to choose a program with a good level of scientific content. Of course, those who seek roles wider afield (for example digital forensics) ought to choose the appropriate course to help them get their foot on the ladder.
Don’t underestimate how much you will have to do put into your study. Furthermore please don’t underestimate how hard you will have to work to pursue your ambition. It is achievable and within your grasp if you’re interested and prepared to put in the legwork and prepare for some frustration as you find your first job. Once in your role – work hard, be fascinated by the topic and all will be good.
Finally – try to engage with your professional body, namely the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences. Students gain massively by membership of their society – enabling them to attend conferences, keep abreast of recent events in the profession and perhaps begin to develop a professional understanding of what is happening both in academia and within the mainstream forensic science delivery. Perhaps you might want to begin by taking a look at the webpages and know that you will get far more out than you put in.
Good luck and best wishes
If you’re a forensic scientist (academic or industry) or a crime scene investigator and would like to be part of this series of interviews, get in touch by emailing locardslabblog[at]gmail.com.
This is Part 2 of our series of interviews with forensic professionals.
Interview Series Part 1 – Interview with Forensic Identification Scientist Alexandre Beaudoin