NFI Science Fair: young scientists present promising forensic innovations

How can digital traces on a smartphone or smartwatch assist crime reconstruction? Does the packaging in which evidence such as underwear is transported have an impact on the traces it bears? Does the distance between the shooter and their target influence trajectory deviation? And can you use general data from the literature to investigate in a case how a trace was created somewhere? These are the four winning studies of PhD students and students in the third edition of the NFI Science Fair. ‘Continuous innovation is vital to the NFI. There is no progress without innovation’, says Annemieke de Vries, Director of Science and Technology. 

Science fair NFI_jonge wetenschappers presenteren veelbelovende forensische innovaties
From left to right: Fabio Tango Cañete (third prize winner in the poster presentation), Nova Jansen (second prize winner in the poster presentation) and Oanelle Gléonec (first prize winner in the poster presentation), Katharina Draxel (runner-up pitches) and Conor McCarthy (pitch winner).

The prize for the winning pitch was awarded to Conor McCarthy, a PhD student at the University of Amsterdam (UvA). ‘My Data2activity research intends to identify what kind of activities and movements people carry out in a specific period, based on digital traces on smartphones and smartwatches’, he explains. ‘For instance, can a smartphone show that someone walked up or down stairs? Or has been on a train? Are the digital traces on a phone a better match for being at home or taking a long walk? This is valuable information that can be used to reconstruct crimes.’ The research helps in verifying scenarios of suspects, for example, or determining whether a suspect could have been present at the crime scene at a specific moment in time.

The researcher also looks at more forensically relevant activities, such as kicking, striking or dragging a heavy object and whether they leave digital traces. ‘We collect a lot of relevant data with our experiments’, says McCarthy. ‘Eventually, the research aims to use AI to determine the evidential value of digital traces for actions in the physical world.’ The jury felt that he was able to communicate a complex topic clearly with a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge. In addition, his research has great value for forensic practice.

Underwear packaging material 

In addition to the pitches by eight PhD students, students were given the opportunity to present their (graduation) traineeship to the audience. Oanelle Gléonec (UvA) won first price. ‘I studied whether the packaging material used for underwear has an impact on the trace evidence’, she explains. When underwear is delivered to the NFI for trace evidence analysis, it is packaged. But does it really matter whether you use a plastic bag or a paper bag? ‘I examined both materials for two trace types: saliva and contact traces. I did all kinds of experiments on the packaging materials to check whether the contact and saliva traces moved or were transferred and whether this varied on both materials.’ The conclusion is that there is no difference in the packaging method and the impact on traces. Both packaging materials are therefore good options. The jury was very enthusiastic about the attractive poster she created for her presentation and the relevance of her practical research to the entire chain.

Shooting incident reconstructions

Nova Jansen (UvA) was awarded second prize for her poster to present her research. In her traineeship, she studied the impact of the shooter’s distance on ballistic path deviation. ‘We know that the bullet, incoming angle and material of the target all have an impact on the bullet’s trajectory. We now see that there is a fourth factor that affects it, namely distance.’ The student conducted a lot of experiments on the NFI’s shooting range, using different weapons and munition types to execute shots at varying distances. ‘To date, we see that lead bullets from a Smith & Wesson at a one-metre distance show a variation in bullet impact spread, which is fairly large. The distribution is smaller at distances of three, six and nine metres.’ 

This is due to the fact that bullets tumble slightly early on due to gunpowder fumes. ‘So we see that the further away you are from your target, the smaller the effect of initial tumbling on bullet impacts and their spread. This is important information, for instance for shooting incident reconstructions’, underlines Jansen. She wants to raise awareness of this potentially influencing factor among professionals who do shooting incident reconstructions. Here, too, the jury was very enthusiastic about her clear story and its value with regard to shooting incident reconstructions. 

Research at the activity level

Fabio Tango Cañete (UvA) was awarded third prize for his recent research into the evaluation of cases at the activity level. In other words, how did a trace in a case end up on something? The Public Prosecution Service and the suspect may present different scenarios on what happened in a criminal case. ‘I want to examine, in stabbing cases, whether you must reproduce the case using the most realistic possible conditions to evaluate the chances of what scenario is most probable. Or whether you can simply use representative data from the literature to be able to make a probability statement about the scenarios?’ If the latter is the case, you can use literature data in case investigations, which will save the forensic investigators a lot of time. The jury complimented Fabio on his clear research scope and informative poster. 

Innovation equals progress

In addition to two NFI representatives, the jury consisted of Chris Pellemans, a forensic police investigator, and Titia van Kleffens, innovation consultant at the Dutch Public Prosecution Service. ‘It is good to see that so many young people are this enthusiastic about scientific research and have developed so much knowledge within a short timeframe. With so many great innovations on the horizon, I can’t wait to see what’s next’, she enthuses. Annemieke de Vries, Director of Science and Technology at the NFI, looks back on the event with pride. ‘It's difficult to imagine the NFI’s innovation activities agenda without the Science Fair! The NFI is always on the lookout for talented researchers, and there were many at this year’s fair.’ 

Collaborating with universities and universities of applied science is an important pillar in the NFI’s innovation programme. ‘Continuous innovation is vital to our institute, but certainly also in a wider context for forensic investigation practices. There can be no progress without innovation, and you lose relevance without progress. That would mean we would not be able to provide adequate answers to our clients’ forensic queries. Students and PhD students, still early on in their careers, are of great help in that respect. I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw.’