Research Engagement and ImpactFlinders Forensic Science cleans up at Awards

From left to right: Emily Rowe, Paul Kirkbride, Jared Castle, Stewart Walker, Jackie Wright, Duncan Taylor, Michaela Kenneally, and David Powers

Flinders has become 'Best in Show' at the National Institute of Forensic Science (Australia and New Zealand) Best Paper Awards. Out of the five awarded categories: Best Paper in a Refereed Journal; Best Chapter; Best Literature Review; Best Technical Note; and Best Case Study, Flinders has won four, and received a high commendation in Best Paper in a Refereed Journal. The Best Paper Awards were created to recognise the contribution of members of the Australian and New Zealand forensic science community in sharing their work and experiences with other members of the forensic and wider communities and to encourage all members of the forensic science community to so contribute.

"This shows the strength of collaboration between Flinders and Forensic Science SA and other research institutes," said Associate Professor Stewart Walker."The outstanding results show that our graduates - Danielle, Duncan, and Michaela - are making an impact in the workforce and are being followed by the next generation of researchers - Emily, Jared, and Jackie - who are making a difference."

The Best Paper in A Referred Journal was awarded to Professor David Powers and Dr Duncan Taylor (who is also employed at Forensic Science SA (FSSA)) for their article "Teaching artificial intelligence to read electropherograms". David and Duncan looked at artificial neural networks (ANN) which have been inspired by the workings of the human brain. These ANNs have been successful in analysing large datasets, performing medical diagnoses, identifying handwriting, playing games, or recognising images in other areas. To assist forensic DNA laboratories, David and Duncan trained an ANN to ‘read’ electropherograms and show that it can generalise to unseen profiles. Electropherograms are produced in great numbers in forensic DNA laboratories as part of everyday criminal casework. Before the results of these electropherograms can be used they must be scrutinised by analysts to determine what the identified data tells the forensic scientists about the underlying DNA sequences. The advantage of using an ANN for this purpose in forensic DNA laboratories would be the saving of resources and reduce the subjective and laborious task of manually classifying data.

Duncan noted, "The work was extended in scope with the input of Information Technology student Ash Harrison, leading to a second publication, and continues with many additional avenues that future students could pursue." David added, "Currently, Computer Science student Michael Kitselaar is using the Colossus supercomputer to optimise the generalisability of the ANNs."

"Observations of DNA transfer within an operational Forensic Biology Laboratory" by Dr Duncan TaylorDr Damien Abarno (who is also employed at FSSA), Ms Emily Rowe (FSSA), and Ms Lauren Rask-Nielsen was awarded the Best Technical Article or Note. Emily was a third year student at Flinders when the work for this paper was produced. In court cases, one concern about the very low levels of biological materials on items is how that DNA came to be on the item, rather than questioning that there is biological material on the item. A number of studies in tightly controlled conditions have been done previously about DNA deposition and transfer, but the Flinders and FSSA team added to this knowledge by investigating the extent to which individuals at FSSA deposited their own DNA on objects throughout the floor of the building where DNA examinations took place. By adding to this knowledge base it can allow more informative answers than 'it's possible' to be given during court cases on how DNA came to be on an item.

These two awards for Duncan add to his recent success as the STEM Professional at the 2017 South Australian Science Excellence Awards for improving forensic evidence interpretation, which included this work on ANN. 

Best Chapter was won by "Microbial impacts in postmortem toxicology" by Jared Castle (PhD student) and his supervisors - Professor Paul Kirkbride, Professor Claire LenehanAssociate Professor Stewart Walker, Frank Reith (CSIRO), and Dr Danielle Butzbach (FSSA). Danielle is a past Flinders' honours and PhD student. This chapter, in Forensic Microbiology, was a review of past studies focused on microbes destroying or forming drugs after death. When determining the circumstances of an individual's death, the identity and quantity of drugs or poisons can assist with the determination of the cause. Microbial activity can affect this by either limiting the amount of biological specimens available for testing or altering the drugs, poisons etc within the body.

Best Case Study was awarded to Dr Jackie Wright (PhD student) and her Flinders supervisors Associate Professor Stewart Walker and Associate Professor John Edwards and co-author Michaela Kenneally (FSSA) for their article, "Adverse health effects associated with living in a former Methamphetamine drug laboratory - Victoria, Australia, 2015". For the nomination of the Best Case Study, the impact this article had created included the information that its Research Output was included in the 99th percentile - in the top 5% of all research output ever tracked by Altmetric, it's Attention Score was higher than 98% of contemporary articles, and 20 news stories were created from the article. The case study considered the effect on a family, including three children, who were living in a home that had been used to make clandestine drugs by the previous owner. All family members were discovered to have traces of methamphetamine in their hair.

Professor Paul Kirkbride et. al. received a High Commendation for their article, "Spatial variations in the consumption of illicit stimulant drugs across Australia: A nationwide application of wastewater-based epidemiology" in Best Paper in A Referred Journal. Obtaining representative information on illicit drug use and patterns across a country remains difficult using surveys because of low response rates and response biases. A range of studies have used wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) as a complementary approach to monitor community-wide illicit drug use. In Australia, no large-scale WBE studies have been conducted to date to reveal illicit drug use profiles in a national context. In this study, the researchers performed the first Australia-wide WBE monitoring to examine spatial patterns in the use of three illicit stimulants (cocaine, methamphetamine; and MDMA). The research found that cocaine was the main drug that differed distinctively among jurisdictions across Australia, that cocaine and MDMA use was higher in large cities and on weekends, and methamphetamine use was relatively widespread and steady throughout the week.

Each paper nominated must have one forensic practitioner as an author.

The achievement of winnign five awards - four best and one highly commended - goes two steps further than the results last year, which saw Flinders' researchers and research students take out two awards and a third paper receive a highly commended technical article or note award.

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