In my last post I touched upon the fact that the future becomes uncertain towards the end of the PhD. I’m applying for a Marie Curie Global Fellowship, which is an incredibly intense process and insanely difficult to make sure you hit all the key points that the examiners are looking for when marking your proposal in the tiny 10 page limit. I’ve luckily received a lot of assistance from Tory over in the EU office who has provided me with funding for undertaking training in writing the perfect application (that’s right, it’s so competitive that there are training companies who make their living from teaching people how to try and write the perfect Marie Curie application!!) So I’m going through these processes, writing drafts and getting feedback from friends, peers and academics. It’s slow, it’s long and it’s hard. But hopefully it will all pay off and I’ll be rewarded with 2 years in Perth, Australia, working with James Speers and his team developing my technology, ready to build it during a third year back at Leicester. Please everyone cross your fingers and toes for me!
What will happen in a few months when the 3 years of INTREPID funds ends?! The lab work has to cease and I’ll be given up to a year to write the thesis, possibly while unemployed. I like that you get up to year to write the thesis, especially as I think my lab work will continue right up until the end of September. But does that really mean that come October 01 2017 I will have gone from being a Marie Curie Early Stage Research Fellow in Physics to an unemployed ‘writer’ staring out of my kitchen window for inspiration. I hope not. So in this, the busiest of periods in a PhD, I’m already applying for Post-Docs, research grants, funding and other Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions. As nice as getting up mid-morning, staying in my dressing gown all day, writing a paragraph or two over a few hours, and being able to watch all the sport TV can muster (day or night) might be, I’m really hoping for some luck in at least one of my proposals. Who knows though. We shall see. For now the future remains a mystery… But I couldn’t have been given a better opportunity to set myself up for future employment than INTREPID. People say that it’s not luck that gets you to where you are, but hard work and deserving it. I’m sure there were many unsuccessful applicants of INTREPID who were very deserving, so I do believe the 10 of us were lucky to get this opportunity. It’s up to us to make the most of it now it’s finishing.
My friends often still ask me, “How on earth did you end up doing that?!” Usually it’s about yet another research trip I have taken to work with people from Agencies like the FBI or ATF. To be honest, my answer is generally, “I really don’t know!”
I vividly remember being in the final year of Primary School and the teacher preparing us all to go to Secondary School where we would have to start to think about our future and know what sort of career we’ll end up having. Everyone in the class was asked what they wanted to be when they’re older and the normal replies of “footballer”, “singer” and “actor/actress” were banded about. However, when it was my turn I said, “Nuclear physicist.” I think I was probably the only person in the class who even knew that that was a thing. But even at such an early age I was fascinated with nuclear energy and the environment. I didn’t become a nuclear physicist, instead I did my GCSEs and A-Levels and went to University to study Oceanography. I kept with the physics theme, focussing on the physics of the oceans. I gained a Masters in Oceanography with my thesis on the overturning circulation of the North Atlantic and how increased temperatures result in increased ice melt, significantly influencing oceanic circulations and hence climate change. It wasn’t therefore such a big jump to take my first job after graduating as an environmental consultant in Cairns, Australia.
My next role would be as an atmospheric physics researcher at the University of Malta, where I also obtained a Masters in Atmospheric Physics. This is quite a logical step, as there are tons of similarities and climatic connections between atmospheric and oceanic physics. People did still ask me, “How on earth did you end up doing that?!”, but more in reference to moving across the world and back to two very different countries.
What people don’t understand though (and I often wonder how on earth did I get into this field…) is how I am now working in forensic science! It’s not even a “regular” area of forensics that I focus on, but a tiny niche related to terrorism and bombs. How do you go from being an environmental researcher to a forensic researcher in post-blast fingerprint retrieval?! That’s the wonderful thing about INTREPID Forensics and its multi-disciplinarity. It was a project that wanted people from outside forensic science to bring their knowledge and expertise from their specialisms into the realm of forensic science, whatever niche that then fell into.
So, from attending conferences with physicists and environmentalists chatting about climate change and teleconnections, I’m writing this from a conference where I’m presenting to the members of the International Association of Bomb Technicians and Investigators who are chatting about bombs and terrorism. In my extremely short research lifetime my work has changed dramatically and been extremely diverse. I love it. I love changing and learning and applying knowledge. It keeps things exciting! I do miss a lot of what I did in the climate change world, but I’m loving what I’m doing now in the Post-Blast bubble. Where will this take me… who knows. But I’m sure it will be anything but typical (I hope so anyway).
After getting back from an amazing holiday travelling through Malaysia, Vietnam and Hong Kong, I thought I’d be hitting the workload head on. But instead, 5 days after touching down at Heathrow I was sitting in East Midlands Airport waiting to board yet another plane. During the final few days of my travels I was invited to be a guest speaker at the EU Presidency Conference MSCA Prizes 2017 in Malta in the session “Contributing to a Better Society”, where I would showcase my research from my Marie Curie Fellowship at this prestigious event. On top of this, I was shortlisted for the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Prizes for Innovation and Entrepreneurship Award. It was a great honour to be recognised in the top 10 for an award open to over 100,000 researchers worldwide… even if I didn’t take home first prize (http://msca2017.eu/msca-2017-awards/awardees/). The conference was one of the best I’ve attended so far. It wasn’t overly big and almost everyone there was invited to be there, so no groups or cliques of researchers all from the same place huddling together for the entire conference – everyone had to and wanted to mingle and meet new people. The entire event was well planned, well organised and incredibly interesting! From presentations about early warning systems for monsoons in India, to marine ecology, and even my own IED research, the spectrum of talks was so broad and captivating. Heading back to Malta for a few days to reminisce and revisit my old stomping ground was also lots of fun 🙂
It’s Easter and the University has 4 compulsory closure days. It’s also nearly May Day which is a public holiday in England. So a perfect time to have a nice holiday and not use too many days of annual leave! See you all in May when I get back to the nitty gritty of thesis writing and labwork. But for now all I have to remember is to get the Factor 50 out 🙂
Six months left until my time in the INTREPID Program is effectively over. It’s absolutely flown by… but hopefully with the amount of work I still have left to do the next six months will go verrrrrry slowly. Not sure what my other INTREPIDers are feeling like at the moment, but six months seems like a very short time now.
It seems I’m never in Leicester! I got back from my last trip to the US on the 21 December, had a break from travelling to spend Xmas and New Year with the family, before heading out to Warsaw a few weeks into this year.
So I’m back in Warsaw for my third secondment visit. This time for 3 weeks in the middle of an extreme Polish winter, with temperatures getting as low as -20C!! Still, when I arrived on Sunday there was an open air concert and party at the Palace of Culture & Science – the snow and freezing temperatures just adding to the atmosphere.
For this visit Martin’s helping me out by giving me access to the XPS and SEM instruments here to do some surface chemistry analysis of my post-blast samples. I’ve trudged over with a load of samples to keep us both very busy for the 3 weeks (lucky Martin!) Hopefully there will still be enough time to enjoy the snow and beauty of this white winter wonderland though.
For the last two months I have been on a bit of an adventure. Starting off in Australia where Francisco and I visited the Australian Federal Police and their brand new Forensic Science site in Canberra. It was amazing, top spec everything and a building layout that allows for easy collaboration and discussion between experts from all areas of forensic science. We also took in a guest lecture at and were shown around the University of Technology Sydney – which again is very impressive. Their research labs are fantastic with basically an entire floor of the University dedicated to forensic science research. We met many of the PhD students who we would go on to have an absolute ball with on the next leg of our trip…
After nearly three weeks in Australia (where I also took some holiday leave to travel around the Whitsundays and visit friends in Cairns) we headed to Auckland where we met up with Thalassa and Annelies. We were there for the Australia and New Zealand Forensic Science Society Annual Symposium. I had a couple of talks, Francisco had a talk and the four of us each had posters too. It was a great opportunity to get invaluable feedback regarding our work, but also great insight into the current advances in this ever changing and ever challenging area. The conference was brilliantly organised and there were two fantastic social events. By far the best conference I’ve been to, from a professional point of view, but also for fun – it was terrific. After the conference Francisco, Thalassa and I hired a campervan and travelled around New Zealand for 10 days, pretty much stopping wherever we fancied. You can’t travel all that way and not make the most of it….
From New Zealand I flew straight to Los Angeles to conduct some more experiments with Fort Collins Sheriff’s Department as well as the Unified Police Department of Greater Salt Lake in Salt Lake City (I say straight… but actually my flight consisted of me pretty much doing a round the world flight: Christchurch-Sydney-Kuala Lumpur-London-Los Angeles… luckily BA gave me a complimentary upgrade from London to LA which was greatly received!) This again was amazing – the work in Fort Collins was slightly dampened by the damp and freezing weather (literally glorious 20s sunshine every day in Colorado… except for the day of the blasts where we woke up in the morning to drizzle, fog and a temperature hovering around 1 degree!) The blasts in Salt Lake City were conducted in more amiable conditions and produced a phenomenal blast! There was fire so the fire department were on hand to hose it all down (that may sound dramatic – they casually just used fire extinguishers), but this added another dimension to my research that I haven’t been able to test yet – the effect of fire and subsequent extinguishing on fingerprints post-blast. If I manage to get ridge detail after that, it will be quite a feat!
So what next. Probably best if I stick around Leicester for a while in the lab, read books and papers and start writing. That probably is best… but I can think of better: back to the US in December for more work with the FBI, off to Warsaw in January for more work with Martin at the Institute of Physical Chemistry and then off to New Orleans for another conference talk in February. The dull life of a PhD student.
ROAD TRIP!! Los Angeles, Phoenix, Monument Valley, Clifton Colorado, Fort Collins Colorado, Cheyenne Wyoming, Denver, Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles. A trip of a lifetime. This wasn’t a holiday though, this was work. As anyone who has seen my blogs knows, for my Ph.D. I blow up things: C4, gunpowder, vehicles, pipe bombs… it’s quite a lot of fun. Someone has to do this type of research right?
For this trip I headed to the States, with Marwan in tow, for some pipe bomb experiments, seeing the effects of high explosives and low explosives on fingerprints and DNA with the amazing guys and gals at Larimer County Sheriff’s Department, Loveland Police Department and the ATF. Every time I go to the States for experimental work I always have to end up in San Diego to have my materials transported back to the UK with the help of the FBI there. As a result, no matter where the experiments take place, I have to get my materials to San Diego before even thinking about getting them back to Leicester, and the only way I can do that is by driving. Cue an unforgettable trip taking in 4600 miles of open American road.
I could basically write a travel blog about this experience. Waking up for the sunrise over Monument Valley, snowboarding in the Rockies, being totally in awe of just how grand the Grand Canyon is, sunset over Death Valley, sunset over the Rockies, the sun setting over a pod of whales in San Diego (I like sunsets), microbrewery pub crawls in Colorado, how “cool” Denver is.
Needless to say I absolute loved everything about this trip. But the bomb blasts were also amazing.
We managed to do around 20 pipes, split up between ones designated for DNA and ones designated for fingerprints. The only thing that didn’t seem to be on our side was the weather, with the occasional hot sunny day, but typically wet cold days and even some snow. We persevered through it all though and managed some fantastic blasts, as well as managing a good mix of C4 pipes and Gunpowder pipes. And even managed to blow up a US-style mailbox on a whim to see what we could get off that. There may have been some fragments missing come the end of it, but it was a terrific effort from everyone there, looking for tiny shards of metal amongst huge area of sand and mud.
Once back in the lab, the first two fragments I tested immediately yielded positive results, which was amazing and unexpected. So not only was the trip as a whole unforgettable, the blasts themselves were great and the results so far seem very positive. But as I said at the start, it really was a once in a lifetime trip. Well it would be… but back I’ll go in October to do some more! I’ll blog about that one next time.
This is one of the amazing things about the INTREPID Forensics Project. The research budget allows for such incredible research to be undertaken. All the individual projects are novel and innovative, with unbelievable opportunities to conduct research that regular Ph.Ds. just aren’t capable of funding. Not only is it setting each of us up for what should hopefully be solid scientific careers, it allows us the opportunity for some little extras in our Ph.D. careers that will never be forgotten and maybe even never be repeated.
On a final note, I’d just like to say a personal farewell to Tom Horton, our INTREPID Administrator, who makes planning trips and experiments like this that bit easier with his efficient approach to management and allocation of the budget. Off to China he trots while Alex Murphy canters in to take over from him. Good luck Alex, I look forward to working with you. And good luck Tom on your exciting new venture.
So the book of Genesis contains the story of Noah and his magnificent Ark; 5:32-10:1. A modest and believable tale of a 500 year old man taking 100 years to build a wooden boat 2/3rds the size of the Titanic to house all the animals on Earth. Clearly whoever made that up was sitting in Venice during Acqua Alta after a few too many Chiantis, watching the loved up couples go past, two-by-two. Just like I was on a grey, cold, wet weekend in March with the flood sirens ringing around the city.
Each year the Marie Curie Alumni Association have their General Assembly and Annual Conference – a great chance for current fellows to meet others inside the MC bubble. The organisers of the MCAA chose the beautiful, charming, characterful city of Venice for 2016 – so obviously I signed up! Along with Jetienne, Marwan, Maurits and Sophia. Another excuse to present a poster too.
Despite the weather, we made the most of our long weekend, Sophia managed to pick up a few souvenirs, Marwan blended in with all the other loved up couples with his new & wonderful wife Olivia, and we all managed to get very very wet. The General Assembly was hosted by the Ca’ Foscari University, whose buildings were fantastic, views stunning and hosting pretty good to boot. Two massively huge downers to the proceedings though – the first being a presentation that was boring on biblical proportions! The other being the loss of my poster – supposedly some of the most astute young minds in science and somehow the organising committee managed to lose my poster. How that happens, I do not know! But at least I got to take it in the first place… hey Francisco 😉
Oh, and as well as very very wet, I got very very lost. Anyone who has been to Venice knows that every little street looks pretty much the same. Relying on GPS on your phone is a must – in fact I think most people see the majority of Venice as pastel colours on their phone screen as they try to get around. So on the night of the most torrential downpour and highest floodwater, that’s when my phone decided it had had enough of being soaked to its core (much like myself) and just gave up (not like myself). It also happened to be the one night where I’d gone to my hotel before dinner and said I’d meet the others later at Campo Santa Margherita, a place I knew exactly how to get to… when my route wasn’t cut off by flooding! So there I was navigating through the floodwaters on my own, with no GPS, no map, no clue. Occasionally I’d spot the odd thing I recognised and a little whoop whoop would run through my head – but prematurely as EVERY tiny little street I recognised seemed to be too deep in floodwater! I navigated the drier streets all the way to Piazzale Roma and miraculously found signs for my destination. I followed helplessly. The final street I needed to go down was, predictably, unnavigable without a boat – but I’d come too far, so I just waded through, I couldn’t get any wetter. And I made it. Just had to remember my way back now…