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.
Alex Smyth - Project 1
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…
The European Academy of Forensic Science (EAFS) holds an International Conference every 3 years, at different European locations each time. This year the destination chosen was Prague and this year I was lucky enough to have an abstract accepted to present my research so far. Having never been to Prague and having heard so much about it, needless to say I was excited to attend for both the stature of the meeting as well as being able to explore a city I’ve always wanted to visit. 2 birds one stone and all that.
The Conference was held at the Congress Centre out of the city centre in the ‘burbs, in a business district – well, in as much that the only reason to visit this little corner of Prague was for business at the Congress Centre. I stayed across the street at the Corinthia Hotel, towering above the skyline with views reaching far across the city. With a top floor pool and spa, it was a lovely place to get some work done. In fact, anyone reading the October INTREPID newsletter take note – I typed that bad boy wearing just my snug swimming shorts, sweating after a stint in the sauna and steam room, taking in the panorama of terracotta rooftops and identifying all the sights I’d visited around the city. Sometimes I wonder why I’m not a stressful guy!
Anyway, to the Conference. It was enormous! In fact, in all honesty, probably too big for its own good. There were so many clashes because there were just so many presentations. And around 400 posters! Deciding upon the “best poster competition” was nigh on impossible. Unfortunately you weren’t allowed to vote for yourself. There were many exceptional talks, interesting posters and unique opportunities for me to meet eminent people in the Forensics field. It was a fantastic week where I learnt more than I could have hoped and made good contacts for the future.
The main reasons for my attending though was to showcase my research, listen to and learn from feedback given to me and to have a dialogue with other scientists interested in the work I’d done so far. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much. It’s very rare for someone still in their first year of their PhD to present anything at a Conference, let alone somewhere like EAFS! However, the feedback was fantastic. I was a little overwhelmed with how positive it was, to be honest. Many people were surprised at just how “good” my results were. As always though, I was also given invaluable constructive feedback with ideas and suggestions to improve upon what I have so far. All in all though, it was incredibly beneficial. The entire week was fantastic… and the sightseeing wasn’t too bad either!
While all my fellow INTREPIDers fork out small fortunes on rent, I’m in a lucky position being a native to be able to house hunt for a place to buy. I started looking in January and found a lovely little 2-bed duplex apartment at the end of March. Since then solicitors and agents have been working away while I have just been sitting, waiting and wondering what on Earth takes so long!! People continually say that buying a property is one of the most stressful things, especially juggling it all with work. I thought it wouldn’t be so stressful as a PhD isn’t a regular 9-5 job so some appointments could be made during these hours, unlike most people. But yep… still a very stressful experience. And after 4 months of sitting, waiting and wondering…. it’s all fallen through! Back to square one! Back on the hunt for a nice little property. I think that juggling the PhD with property purchasing is probably not as stressful as a regular 9-5 worker, but boy I could do without the extra hassle. Why can’t life be easy!
Well… it’s been a few months! I think we’re supposed to average about a blog a month, so I’m now failing miserably! But I’ve found my way out of my lab(yrinth) and back into the real world, after 2 months or so in the darkness completing the Top Secret Project. Just in time for spring!
It’s been a rather busy time, 2015 so far. I’ve started and finished the Top Secret Project (which I really enjoyed!), participated in and presented at Open Days and Conferences, as well as attended the Forensics Europe Expo in London. The highlight of these being the Sir Alec Jeffreys ‘New Frontiers in Forensics’ conference held at the University of Leicester, where I got to meet the man himself. I also presented a poster of my work on the Top Secret Project, which attracted quite a lot of attention from industry and academics alike. For those of you wondering what the Top Secret Project was… well it’s time to move on. Sorry.
The Forensics Europe Expo, held at Olympia in London, was enormous! In parallel with the Forensics Expo there was also a Counter Terrorism Expo, which had some rather interesting stands! This did mean that when entering the exhibition hall you had to go through what was essentially airport security! But it was a fruitful first day, meeting exhibitors showing off their wonderful new gadgets, some of which may even be quite useful for my research.
So I’ll keep this one short and sweet. I could write for hours more about the last few months, but I’ll spare you all and revert back to more regular updates from now on.
So it’s been three months now. Christmas was nice. New Year was fun. Lots of reading. But with the new year came a new project, on top of my PhD. A top secret project, issued by a Government organization. (OK I might be overdoing it a little, but it’s emphatic license right?! Although I can’t say too much about it and it is from a Government organization – I just like sounding like I’m on Sherlock). I’m the hands on man conducting the research and analyzing the data. It sounds fun, it sounds exciting, it sounds important. But is it relevant? When I first said yes to working on it, I really didn’t know for sure how it would fit in with my PhD! I’ve heard stories of PhD students being used to do the laborious tasks in different projects awarded to their department from various scientific or Governmental bodies and I couldn’t help thinking “Is that what’s happening to me?!” So my Christmas holidays were largely spent worrying and reading around the top secret project, rather than my PhD project. The first week back I had a meeting with the bods involved in the top secret project and my mind was eased quite a bit. It is relevant!
I think there are often times when PhD students receive information or are asked to do something, but they don’t quite understand what is being asked of them, how it will help them, what they will gain from it and what they are actually going to do. This first meeting brought together the people involved and lots was discussed, questions asked and time-frames/deadlines set. I understood my role. Over the three years of my PhD I can now see how this sort of thing can be used and implemented at some point (near the end to be honest). But nevertheless, there is a use for it. However, for now, it means that the next three months of my PhD will be taken over by the top secret project. So within my first 6 months, half will have been spent on my initial PhD set up and very preliminary results, while the second half will be on something that will be useful right at the end. Whatever happens, the top secret project will form a chapter in my thesis, will look great in my probation review, will allow for publications and presentations at conferences, but it will ultimately be up to me to make it worthwhile to my PhD. And that’s my point for this blog. A PhD is what you make of it, if you are asked to do something that you do not like or think is not relevant in the slightest, say no. If you can see the relevance and use it to your gain, say yes. But don’t just say yes to everything because you feel obliged to. It is your PhD, do what’s best for you.
I am writing this a bit late, over 3 weeks after the event (and being scolded by Tom daily as a result to get myself in gear). But on the weekend of 7 and 8 November the Chartered Society of Forensic Science held its annual conference at the University of Leicester’s College Court Hotel and Conference Centre (very handy location). It was at this event that the INTREPID Project was officially unveiled to the world!!! Well to those in this world who happened to be at the conference anyway.
Prior to the conference the team had been asked if anyone wanted to chair one of the sessions of the postgraduate conference. I immediately volunteered… and then immediately asked myself why on earth had I done that!! There were 9 others that could have volunteered and there were only 4 sessions to be chaired! At least I seemed keen… I convinced myself. But actually I was quite looking forward to chairing and getting that experience, even if it was just me introducing speakers, keeping them to their allocated time slot and then asking the room for any questions.
The first session was chaired by Silke, and a marvelous job she did too! No hiccups, smooth as you like! Session 2 was my session. Just before I got everyone back in the room after a coffee break one of the event organizers asked me to read out some important information… and so my session started with:
“Could the owner a black estate car, registration number XX00 XXX, please be aware that your windows are open and the inside of your car is getting soaked”
I think everyone thought it was a joke, like I was Mr Cool getting some laughs in at the start. I feel sorry for the person who had to drive home on a wet car seat though.
So it all started well. As the first speaker was turning from slide to slide I sat there thinking that things were going great after starting off with a room full of laughs (even though completely unintentional). That smooth start was quickly obliterated soon after. As the chair I had 3 A4 pieces of paper, one with a massive number 5 on it (indicating 5 minutes to go), one with a massive number 1 and one informing the speaker they must STOP. Well, when the 5 minute countdown began I very slyly moved the 5 minute remaining paper to the top of my pile on my lap (which included other papers and the running order of session…), I lifted the pile up as one to my chest so no-one around could see me doing so, but ensuring I was in the speakers eye-line. A quick acknowledgement from the speaker, and a running thought of “well done Alex, no-one noticed!”, I lowered the papers back to my lap. CATASTROPHE!!! I dropped them all on the floor. This was bad enough, distracting enough, but as I leaned down to sort out the mess I had made, Lisa Smith, the project co-ordinator, our leader, our boss, the one who we are supposed to look up to, respect and admire…. giggled away to herself and whispered “smooth” in my ear! Terrific! Rosie cheeked and a bit embarrassed I continued on without any other hiccups and the session went well. Apparently no-one noticed I had dropped the papers (except the ever perceptive Dr Smith), even Sofia who was sat next to me.
The conference was good. There were some very interesting talks, some very good talkers and it was of great insight to the sort of things that will be required of me in the coming years. The conference dinner was a black-tie affair and very nice – an English roast, which was good for all the newbies to England in the group. Although the Dutch twins of Thalassa and Annelies just don’t understand the beauty of Yorkshire Puddings. You’ll learn to love them girls, I promise!
Anyway… more to come in the exciting life of an INTREPID Forensicer soon.