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CSI Curtin: the researchers helping to solve crimes with chemistry

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Have you ever watched a television crime show like Bones, CSI or Silent Witness and wondered just how realistic their forensic methods really are?

Several graduated cylinders of various thickness and heights with white side markings in front of a large beaker.
Image credit: Horia Varlan

Three young researchers at Curtin’s Department of Chemistry and Nano Chemistry Research Institute, Holly Yu, Georgina Sauzier and Karin Van Der Pal, are researching and developing new forensic methods that can be employed by police and other government agencies to help solve crimes and uncover mysteries in the real world. Their diverse research can help to show future students, particularly young women, that chemistry has applications outside of the lab, and can offer many exciting career paths.

Holly Yu

Holly Yu has been in Australia for two and half years since completing her Masters in Forensic Science at the University of Srathclyde in the UK. Her PhD work here at Curtin is certainly making a bang in the field of forensic science.

“My PhD work involves forensic explosive samples, so really tiny quantities of explosives,” says Yu.

“I’m focusing on how to improve the recovery of explosives from different surfaces, how to improve the storage conditions for samples containing explosives, because they can undergo very rapid degradation, and how best to analyse these samples containing explosives.”

Image of a explosion.

Yu has conducted detonations with the WA Police Tactical Response Group.

Yu has been working in collaboration with David DeTata from the ChemCentre to investigate how best to store soil samples taken from explosion scenes, such as a car bombing or a landmine detonation site.

Soil samples are usually stored at room temperature, causing any explosives that may be present to undergo very rapid degradation. However, Yu’s research has shown that if soil samples containing explosives residues are stored in freezers, the degradation is mitigated.

“If the police now freeze such samples then we should see much longer explosive persistence times,” says Yu. “In some of my samples stored at room temperature I was seeing degradation within hours, but if you store them in a freezer, you can still detect most of the explosives after six weeks.”

Through her research, Yu has been able to travel and work outside a laboratory setting. She has conducted detonations with the WA Police Tactical Response Group, and is collaborating with the University of Dundee in Scotland, which she has visited twice on exchange.

Yu has also presented her findings at three forensic research symposiums this year, where she has won awards at each for best oral presentation, including most recently at the 2016 Australian and New Zealand Forensic Science Society Symposium (ANZFSS) in September.

Three different soil samples

Yu’s research has shown that soil samples are best stored under freezing temperatures.

Though adjusting to Australian culture has been more challenging for Yu than working with explosives, she is looking forward to continuing her research, which she hopes will make a positive impact on society.

“I think forensic science is really interesting because you’re kind of solving mysteries and putting pieces together to solve a puzzle. You’re also helping people; you’re getting justice for people and I really like that aspect of it.”

Georgina Sauzier

“I’ve always had an interest in chemistry,” says Sauzier. “As a kid my parents would give me chemistry experiment books that I’d read through; I made a lot of mess in the kitchen doing homemade experiments.”

Sauzier’s aptitude for experimentation saw her graduate in the top one per cent of her year in forensic and analytical chemistry in 2011, and receive three School of Science awards in her final semester.

Sauzier completed her PhD dissertation in June this year, and will graduate in February. Expanding on similar Honours work, her project involves using a statistical method called chemometrics to try and obtain more objective information from forensic evidence, with a focus on inks, explosives and fibres. It is hoped that Sauzier’s research will establish statistically validated protocols for collecting, handling or analysing forensic evidence.

A pipe bomb explodes.

Controlled pipe bomb explosions form part of Sauzier’s research.

“For the explosive work I was looking at using statistical methods to optimise the ways that you sample for explosives residues after say, a pipe bomb, to make sure that you’ll be able to detect any explosives and help investigations of an explosions event,” explains Sauzier.

This aspect of her PhD research enabled Sauzier to participate in an international collaboration with researchers in the United States. She spent two months conducting experiments under the supervision of Dr John Goodpaster at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis.

Sauzier’s research on blue ballpoint pen ink, which also forms part of her PhD, is something that could be easily seen on a crime show. Using chemometrics with a technique called diffuse reflectance visible spectroscopy, Sauzier determined that it is possible to identify the inks used on a single document, and detect the chemical changes that occur in these inks over time.

“If you have a bank cheque that you think has been altered, you’re going to want to determine whether there are two different inks on it,” says Sauzier. “You also want to look at the age of the ink: was something signed when it was supposed to be signed? Or has something been added to it at a later date?”

An inks plot showing different wave lengths produced by different types of pen ink.

Using diffuse reflectance visible spectroscopy it is possible to identify different types of pen inks used on the same document.

Sauzier worked on this portion of her PhD project in collaboration with forensic practitioners at the Document Examination Solutions, based in Karawara. Though her findings need further development, they will ideally allow forensic document examiners to do their work faster and more accurately, and also help assist police in fraud investigations.

“Part of the reason we do so much collaboration with other universities, document examiners, archivers and police, is to make sure that whatever it is we’re doing is going to be of some practical use,” says Sauzier. “It’s not just something we’ve done for research, it’s something that can be used and is applicable within a forensic context.”

Karin Van der Pal

Housed in the Indianapolis Museum of Art are woodblock prints by world-renowned artist Gustave Baumann. However, it was discovered that some of his pen ink notations on these works were mysteriously vanishing.

Karin Van Der Pal is working at the Indianapolis Museum of Art to figure out what happened to Baumann’s inscriptions. Her PhD research analyses how paper chemistry affects materials or residues placed on paper, such as ink or fingerprints.

“We know it’s not the ink chemistry that has changed because there are other objects with that particular ink on them that are still visible, so we’re assuming it’s the paper chemistry that is playing with the ink. It’s just disappeared,” says Van Der Pal.

Van Der Pal was recently awarded a Royal Australian Chemical Institute Travel Grant, a Graduate Women WA Foundation Bursary and a Rockingham City Council Youth Encouragement Grant, which have enabled her to travel to Indianapolis in the US and further her research at the museum. She was also awarded an ANZFSS travel grant, and travelled to Auckland in September to present her findings at ANZFSS.

Van Der Pal’s research will make an important contribution to the field of conservation chemistry, an area in which more research is needed. Van Der Pal says the lack of research can make her work challenging because foundational methods or processes aren’t always available, or applicable to specific objects.

“One technique that was used for whitening paper a few years ago was to bleach the paper to get rid of the yellow, but they actually found that after bleaching the paper, you can’t sufficiently get rid of the acids left by the bleach, and those acids actually increase the yellowing speed of the paper,” she says.

Gustave Baumann's print of "Aspen Red River."

Disappearing act: Gustave Baumann’s signature (visible here) has vanished from some of his prints.

“Previous methods [that] were thought safe to use are not that great now. And conservation chemistry is something that you look at 100 years from this point, and you have to think ‘what is the best thing to do at this stage?’”

Despite its difficulties, Van Der Pal chose to do her PhD in conservation chemistry because she found she was interested in art conservation and has always been fascinated with history.

“There are so many different questions that need to be answered and there are always going to be questions in forensic science.”

The forensic scientists of the future

Sauzier, Yu and Van Der Pal strongly encourage young people to consider studying chemistry because there are so many areas to choose from.

“Even if you have to get through your undergrad and sit through a few subject classes that aren’t particularly interesting to you, it’s definitely worth pursuing further, because guaranteed there will be an area of study that you will enjoy,” says Van Der Pal.

As for television crime programs, the researchers are in agreement that though they don’t always get things right, they’ve helped push forensic science into the mainstream.

“I think it’s great that these shows put awareness of forensic science out there,” says Sauzier. “There are certain bits where I cringe and think, ‘that’s not exactly how it’s done’ but it’s been good for us because now we get people coming up and asking us about our courses, and we didn’t have nearly as many people interested before.”

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