Forensic Horizons – research conference 2013

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One year ago I attended a Forensic Science Society meeting about research and wrote the post ‘Forensic Science Research – What Research?‘.  That has been one of my most read pages and had many comments here and on Twitter.


One year on – I went to the Forensic Science Society ‘Forensic horizons’ meeting in Manchester.  Not only was it a good chance to meet some forensic friends old and new it also gave an opportunity to hear talks from many in the forensic science research area.

What did I find?  Was there more research than I thought or is it still a very difficult area to get funding for research? Well, a bit of both.  In this post I will cover the positive aspects of the conference – some of the talks and areas of research that interested me. I will then think about improvements that could be made to the conference later.

Talks I enjoyed:

Sue Pope – Principle Forensic Services

Sue is a DNA expert (not my field – I was braving the biological world for a few hours) and was talking about management of DNA related cases. As well as providing a useful overview of the current DNA casework situation with some interesting case examples, Sue was one of few speakers to provide positive suggestions on improving the current situation.  Proposals included a central procurement link to drive costs down for all for consumable items and reduce the amount of QA required at each lab (if each lab is provided with the same batch of consumables/reagents/swabs do they each need to undertake the same QA tests?).  She also outlined the issues around sharing of information before cases, which can lead to delays and experts being asked to comment on reports whilst at the courthouse rather than having time to think and research. She proposed that there should be clear protocols around the sharing of data and reports and timelines for these.

This was an interesting and thought provoking talk.


Rob Bradshaw – Sheffield Hallam University

Rob is a PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University – working on advanced fingerprint methodologies.  The work he presented was ‘Detection of exogenous and semi-exogenous substances of forensic interest in latent fingermarks by MALDI-MS’.  He gave the example of cocaine – you can detect cocaine, which tells you that someone has been in contact with cocaine but if you can detect metabolites (such as benzoylecgonine) you can be more certain that that person was a user of the drug.  Another very interesting development was the detection of condom lubricants in fingermarks with obvious uses in sexual assault cases.  MALDI can also be used to differentiate between overlapping fingermarks by picking certain masses which are not present in both. This methodology is being incorporated into the Home Office fingermark development workflow and has a bright future.


Elisa van den Heuval – NFI, Netherlands

This was an interesting talk entitled ‘CSI The Hague’.  The Netherland Forensic Institute (NFI) is involved in a partnership with big name electronics manufacturers, universities and local government to fund an innovative programme in crime scene analysis and digital capture. The following film gives a brief oversight of what they are doing.

This talk was a nice counterpoint to some talks which presented crime scene analysis a backwards and unscientific art.

Julie Evans – Roar Forensics

Ah, back on safe ground for me – toxicology.  Julie talked about the screening of toxicology samples for new psychoactive drugs using HPLC-DAD and LC-MS techniques in her presentation ‘A Designer Life’.  She explained how there has been a massive increase in the number of new drugs appearing over the past few years, which challenges labs analytical capability.  Roar found an interesting way around some of the issues and have been granted a flexible scope 17025 accreditation.  The analytical approach was validated rather than the specific test.  The method involves a screen using HPLC-DAD and follows up with mass spectral confirmation. One issue in toxicology and drug analysis is the availability of reference materials, as the providers of such standards cannot keep up with the new drugs (73 new drugs were detected in Europe in 2012, up from 49 in 2011).  Julie gave some interesting case examples and I found I had not heard of all of the drugs she was talking of, so a useful update for me.


I was flitting between sessions to try and see as much as I could, so I know I missed several talks I would have liked to see –  several on human identity, drugs on banknotes and analysis of ignitable liquids at crime scenes.  I was pleased with the amount of research being presented – mainly by universities with a few talks from bigger providers.  I would still like to see more collaborations between forensic firms and universities – such as in my previous post on Accredited Research Providers.

I also enjoyed some talks on method validation and accreditation, useful for me to keep up to date with current requirements.

My overall feeling of the conference was positive.


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About Dr Tom Bassindale

Dr Tom Bassindale is a forensic scientist, and the founder of We Are Forensic. He is currently the subject lead for chemistry and forensic science at Sheffield Hallam University. He's managed hundreds of forensic toxicology cases, and is an experienced court witness. He has specialist expertise in forensic toxicology and drug testing in sport. And yes... he watches CSI.