Criminalistics Section News — October 2016

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles contained in the Academy News are those of the identified authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Academy.

Source:  Karolyn L. Tontarski, MS, Section Chair

With 2016 speeding by, the 2017 AAFS Annual Scientific Meeting will be here before we know it!  Abstracts are in and selections have been made, so we already know the meeting in New Orleans will be loaded with lots of amazing presentations.  Criminalistics Section Program Committee Chair Kristy Kadash and Co-Chair Patrick Buzzini have embraced President John Gerns’s meeting theme, which is readily apparent by the content of the Criminalistics Section’s sessions.

Three of the 2017 Criminalistics Section’s sessions, held as part of the presentations during the daily scientific sessions, will celebrate where the section has been — and where the section is going.  The aptly named “DNA Testimony in the Past, Present, and Future” will explore the evolution of DNA testimony over the years. “Deliberations on Y-Chromosomal Short Tandem Repeat (Y-STR) Interpretation, Present and Future” will have attendees considering how foundational YSTR research and testing will impact the application of this type of DNA analysis going forward.

Of particular note is the two-hour panel session entitled (not surprisingly!) “Our Future Reflects Our Past:  The Evolution of Criminalistics.”  Invited speakers Doug Lucas, Peter De Forest, Pierre Margot, Sheila Willis, and Claude Roux will lead session attendees through a lively discussion of this topic. The speakers will address the origin of criminalistics from a historical and philosophical perspective; will discuss the developments that have led to today’s practice; and will address questions such as:  What is the future of criminalistics? Who defines the path of criminalistics?  How can one learn from the past of criminalistics to appropriately define its future?

With respect to the remainder of the Criminalistics Section program in New Orleans, expect the scientific sessions to be chock-a-block full of informative and thought-provoking posters and oral presentations.  As learned from past annual meetings, the poster sessions provide a solid foundation with respect to current research and issues of interest to the Criminalistics Section.  Plan to spend time between 11:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday exploring topics of personal interest with the presenters.  The ability to gain instant feedback when posing a query during the poster sessions is a time-honored, scientific tradition that embraces the ability of colleagues to instantaneously create a dialogue around a research (or other) topic, often sparking ideas for future projects or approaches.

Continuing the effort based on meeting attendee feedback, the Criminalistics Program Committee has worked to incorporate more time for substantive question-and-answer periods during the presentations. When reviewing the program in preparation for the meeting, take time to jot down questions that come to mind when reading abstracts of interest.  If the presenter doesn’t cover these questions and time allows, proceed immediately to the microphone to address the presenter.  Those expecting to take full advantage of question-and-answer time should position themselves near the microphone “beacon” when selecting a seat!

A subtle, yet important, change for the Criminalistics Section in New Orleans is the fact that the papers presented during the Friday night “Believe It or Not” session have been peer-reviewed, enabling inclusion of the presentation titles and names of the presenters in the formal Academy Program.  While this Friday-night session doesn’t have a lot of history (i.e., one doesn’t have to go way back in a time machine), it began as a truly informal session in 2014, based on a suggestion from Criminalistics Section Fellow Daniel Petersen.  Initially, the session focused solely on the world of DNA, with the inaugural session named “You Got DNA from WHAT?”  The concept of a more relaxed, slightly more entertaining than a regular daytime presentation session has rapidly evolved into the current “Believe It or Not” session. Plan to come to this session on Friday evening from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. to unwind from an action-packed day, gasp in amazement regarding case approaches and outcomes, and relax a little (or a lot) in preparation for the Saturday morning scientific sessions!

This year’s meeting theme, Our Future Reflects Our Past:  The Evolution of Forensic Science, should cause each Criminalistics Section member to consider his/her own role with respect to promoting the changes occurring in forensic science.  At a minimum, each individual has a responsibility to be aware of the activities of the relevant Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) or OSACs having the potential to impact the future of their specialty area(s).  Further, Criminalistics Section members should also be aware of the progress of the AAFS Standards Board (ASB), the Academy’s Standards Development Organization (SDO).

Given all of the pending changes to the field of forensic science, this call to action is real and critical to the future of criminalistics.  A “not my job,” “not my specialty,” or “this is a 9-to-5 position” mentality will not move the field of criminalistics forward in a meaningful way. Clearly, at the very least, there continues to be a need to provide basic scientific underpinning for many aspects of criminalistics examinations.  Getting where our chosen field needs to be will require a lot of effort, time, and hard work.

Now is the time for each of us to assess how best to contribute to the future of our field — and then begin to act.  Take time to assess what you can bring to the effort to meet our collective goal.  Will it be drafting and/or review of standards documents, participation in committee work, conducting OSAC-specified necessary research, or holding down the fort at the lab so others have the time to actively participate?

In the near term, criminalists are called upon to provide their talents and their time — most often as volunteers and by “donating” time above and beyond a paid work week.  During this critical juncture in forensic science, each criminalist must do his or her part to help achieve the common goal of ensuring all necessary scientific underpinnings are explored, standards are developed, and new procedures (when applicable) are established, validated, integrated into the quality system, and implemented as rapidly as possible.