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.
Alex Smyth - Project 1
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.
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…
Although I failed to blog about my first secondment visit (because like I said, I’m useless), I did actually write about it in the 3rd edition of our newsletter 🙂 Well anyway, it was time to return. After having conducted two car bomb blast experiments in San Diego (see blog 8), I needed to analyse my metals discs to see what surface chemistry, if any, was occurring. So I hopped on a plane to see Martin Jönsson-Niedziółka, who wrote a great piece for our 5th newsletter by the way, which is lukewarm off the press.
Shall I talk about the science or the fun? I think fun. Wait for the publications to read about the science!
On my first visit Martin and Wojciech Adamiak introduced me to Polish Vodka, litre Steins of Polish beer and a little bit of physical chemistry (in that order). This time there was certainly a more dedicated approach to work, but also plenty of time for some evening drinks! Thanks mainly to Paulina Jeleń (I think… it could’ve been Emilia Witkowska-Nery or Magdelena Kundys… for sure it wasn’t Martin though :p ) we hit upon the “cooler” part of town, ate some Mexican food, drank some cocktails and had a thoroughly good night. Being the professional I am, I was up early and out of the hotel first thing, as always… but it seems a tram driver was still nursing one too many vodkas from the night before. Very unprofessional. Something I’d never seen or even knew could happen – two trams had crashed into each other! And that was obviously the reason I ended up in the office a little late in the end.
Good trip though. Some good work and some good fun.
Before I get into the crux of my adventures, I just want to mention one of the INTREPID clan who has been having a bit of an adventure of her own, although not the type anyone would ever wish to have to experience. So on a serious note I just want to say how amazing and courageous Silke is – I hope everyone has read her recent blog and wishes her well in killing Kevin.
Over the next week I am going to give anyone that’s interested a blog blizzard, clogging your screen with a whitewash of information from an adventurous 2016 so far. And all because I have been utterly useless where blogging is concerned. I’ve done so much since my last blog and even more during the last 20 months that I haven’t bothered to keep anyone up do date with. Watch this space for stories of trams crashing in Warsaw, snow-storms in the Rockies, Bill Clinton, taken out for lunch by the FBI, doing a US road trip in the name of science, a fleeting and wet visit to Venice, blowing things up with Marwan, being given two keynote speeches, invited to experiments, ivory poaching… and maybe even throw in some personal stuff too.
So tomorrow is the mid-project review. It’s the half-way point of the project. An opportunity for each of us to present our work so far to an EU delegate, a chance for Lisa to present what the project has achieved overall up to now, and Tom the excuse to show his more artistic side in creating a fancy booklet for invited guests to peruse at their leisure. As for me, my presentation’s been rehearsed – each time being a different length; 12:05, 11:33, 10:40, 09:55… let’s hope I nail it tomorrow and get bang on 10 minutes.
It’s not all work work work ya know as a PhD student! Don’t listen to those tall tails. Sometimes you can take a little holiday every now and then. And after about a year “in the job” I thought it was about time for a holiday. Somewhere fun, hot and far away. Brazil! So I packed my bags and had me a South American adventure with my girlfriend. After the IAFSM Conference and all the planning, rushing and frantic work that went into organising the shipment of experimental test pieces from the US to the UK that had been involved in a car bomb experiment (not the easiest thing to achieve these days!! But with many thanks to a great FBI Special Agent it was eventually a success), it was nice to have a few weeks off. The timing wasn’t great – landing at Manchester from San Diego one day and two days later flying off to Rio from Birmingham. No time to let jet-lag get the better of me I suppose. But enough time to organise a vital meeting with my supervisor to discuss all that went on in San Diego.
The holiday was fantastic. Not that I needed revitalised after having just spent 10 days in California. Popping over into Argentina and Paraguay, we managed to do lots of exploring, picking up some Portuguese and Spanish lingo along the way. It wasn’t all holiday though. I was required to do some work whilst out there and on a very wet, tropical stormy day I took the opportunity to complete some mandatory work for the EC for the mid project review in February. Gotta utilise the time while you can I suppose. Maybe I’ll re-phrase my first sentence actually: it is all work work work ya know as a PhD student! Actually, who am I kidding! But really, even as a PhD student it’s good to have a holiday. Balancing work & pleasure and time management is such a big part of a PhD, just like any job suppose.
November 09 to November 13 saw the delegation of the IAFSM 2nd Annual Training Conference arrive in Mission Beach, San Diego… and I was lucky enough to be one of them. Not directly related to my research interests, the International Association of Forensic and Security Metrology (IAFSM) is more into the use and development of high precision metrological systems than fingerprint detection techniques. However, every year the training conference has a workshop and this year it was right up my alley – a car bomb workshop which I was invited to attend and conduct some experiments in. The delegates were there to test out their scanning equipment – 3D crime scene scanners, not really my field of expertise! And likewise, the reason I was there – not really anyone else’s field of expertise who was also attending. This meant needing to give a talk at the workshop to describe my experiment, the reasoning behind the experiment and a few instructions on how the participants could assist me by being as careful as possible in not contaminating any DNA evidence that may have been planted… All in all it was a great success. All I need to do is get all the data analysed!
One other huge benefit to my research from this conference were the number of contacts I made. So many people offering assistance for future experiments, from Canada, USA and even in the UK. But that’s the beauty of being able to attend conferences such as this: it’s not just the content or scientific nature of a conference that is rewarding, but the contacts that couldn’t be made any other way and open up so many avenues for future research and development of my project. The IAFSM Conference, in particular, opened up so many future collaborative opportunities. And I am incredibly grateful to Eugene Liscio for inviting me and allowing me to take over so much of the workshop for my own research gain. Lots more work to be done together in the future as a result…