My current research focuses on DNA damage in samples that were exposed to high heat or to explosions. This project attracted me like a magnet for three main reasons:
First, it has direct applications to the investigation of high profile and mass disaster cases. Second, the degraded type of evidence (burned – exploded) increases the scientific challenge. Finally, I am having a lot of fun despite the PhD’s work intensity.
My appetite to reconstruct past events began during my undergraduate studies at the American University of Beirut when Science (B.Sc. in Biology) met history/prehistory (optional classes in Archaeology). It was difficult back then to realise that I was taking my first professional steps by learning the fundamentals of natural sciences and applying them to real-life situations. The first time that I heard of forensic science, I was sitting through a molecular biology class, facing a projected image of ‘DNA fingerprints’, and listening to Professor R. Talhouk talking about human identification through genetics. I decided to get more hands-on practice in DNA analyses and started working at the American University of Beirut Medical Center under the supervision of Professor Rose-Mary Boustany (MD, PhD). There, I learned the basic techniques in molecular biology such as DNA extraction/amplification/sequencing as well as Southern and Western blotting.
Professor Boustany was a driving force for me towards achieving my goals. I soon enrolled in the Biomedical and Forensic Studies in Egyptology’s M.Sc. at the University of Manchester, and learned more advanced scientific techniques to reconstruct the past. For my Master’s thesis, I studied the effects of mummification on the post-mortem decomposition of DNA and found a clear resistance of the molecule in mummified mice liver tissue. At the end of this degree, I was sure that I wanted to specialise in forensic science. This is when I eyed the University of Lausanne, where the first ever forensic science curriculum was established by Professor Rudolph Archibald Reiss in 1902. Known today as the Ecole des Sciences Criminelles (ESC), this school taught me about the power of such a discipline (scientific evidence) but also about its limitations (weak evidence vs. strong evidence). It also taught me the dangers of the discipline when the inherent uncertainties of science are not acknowledged or understood.
I believe that the forensic science education of ESC is one of the most robust and comprehensive worldwide. It adopts a generalist approach that starts with a solid foundation in natural sciences at an undergraduate level, and moves into more specific applications at the postgraduate one. Those who graduated from this school are expected to be crime scene experts, laboratory analysts, statistical evaluators, informatics literates, acquainted with all fields of Criminal Justice (e.g. criminology and law), and are self-taught in stress management. Soon after obtaining my second M.Sc. from this school and completing a short training with the scientific police of Geneva, I returned to Lebanon and taught at the American University of Beirut and the American University of Science and Technology. I also created contacts with members of the Lebanese police as I aim to build a cooperation platform between law enforcement agencies and the academic institutions.
In 2015, I decided to further my studies and acquire my PhD. Project 3 of the INTREPID Forensics programme brought me back to the lab and allowed me to revisit major challenges in forensic genetics. My research can be summarized as exploring the effect of extreme conditions on loss of genetic information from biological samples. The aim is to improve human identification outcomes in cases involving fires, explosions and mass graves. Three years of living and breathing this project have endowed me with skills that I judge indispensable to realising these future career goals.