[This blog post is unusual. It is the script of an interview facilitated by a friend (who, in solidarity with Ms. Elena Ferrante, wishes to remain anonymous). She offered me homemade sweets and a hearty pot of tea, so I couldn’t say no to conversation.]
Friend: Let us start with the general arc of your trajectory: you did your undergraduate studies in Biology at the American University of Beirut (AUB), you did 2 masters degrees, the first at Manchester University’s Biomedical and Forensic Studies in Egyptology program, the second at Lausanne’s Ecole des Sciences Criminelles in Forensic Science, and now you are a Ph.D. student in Forensic Genomics at Leicester University with Marie Curie’s INTREPID forensics program. Can you tell me about your inspiration for this trajectory?
Marwan El Khoury: Back in school, I remember being equally interested in literature, the social sciences and the natural sciences. I chose Biology for my undergraduate studies without an exclusive penchant towards it, but mostly because I was more confident in it compared to other subjects. Most of my peers who chose this program at the American University of Beirut were studying it as a pre-requisite to Medicine studies, which was far from my personal interests at the time.
There, I registered most of my ‘optional’ classes in Archaeology, a subject that turned out to be very formative with regards to my current interests. I wanted to use a solid scientific reasoning to resolve “what happened” in the past. Soon after I learned about DNA “fingerprinting” in a Molecular Biology class, I developed a main interest in identifying “who was there” which in fact turns out to be a crucial element to answering the larger question of “what happened”. Let me mention that DNA “fingerprinting” was invented by professor Alec Jeffreys in exactly the same building I go to everyday to work. My postgraduate studies in Forensic Science and my current PhD research follow the logic of answering the questions of “who was there” and “what happened” as accurately as possible.
F: Are you following this path out of intellectual curiosity or is it a desire to have real-life applications? Or is it both you are interested in?
MEK: You can say that it is both. This question however makes me reflect on the great power – which can be dangerous – of Forensic Science: applying theory to real life has direct and significant consequences on people. The danger is more in reporting the results to a ‘non-scientist’ decision maker (judge) rather than in the imperfections of the science itself. A perseverant intellectual curiosity and judiciousness are therefore essential for translating theory to real life applications.
F: Is there a type of case or investigation that interests you in particular?
MEK: I surely have preferences, and they mostly relate to the type of evidence I work with rather than the type of crime. As my Ph.D. suggests, my chief interest revolves around bad quality traces that are difficult to detect and analyse. This is where I want to add value.
If I step outside of the strict role of the forensic scientist and fully answer your question, I am interested in the junction of human rights and the scientific investigation. I look forward to applying my work to cases that involve mass crime (murder, rape and looting) as a way of waging war, oppressing people and instigating terror. Another aspiration for me is to help regions affected by such experiences to establish their own judicial system that necessarily involves solid and advanced forensic science as part of the process.
F: Your project is quite specific at the moment…
MEK: Yes, the current title is Recovery of DNA from Samples that are Subjected to Extreme Conditions. It is still very broad in the world of Forensic Genomics and I have narrowed it down to more specific extreme conditions.
F: What are some applications of your project to real life?
MEK: Very often if not always, circumstances make it so that you don’t obtain pristine biological samples from the crime scene. Light, heat, humidity, time, physical strain, contamination … these are just a few factors that can heavily harm the quality of the information hence affecting the strength of the evidence. So working on how to make damaged DNA more interpretable means that you are increasing the potential to solve challenging and usually top priority cases, but you are also opening the way to go back in time and reconstruct heavily damaged “ancient DNA” (today a sub-specialty at the cross-roads between Genetics and Archaeology).
F: Do you think that regardless of how DNA was damaged, it can be analysed using the same method?
MEK: This is part of what we are investigating at the moment – are different biological samples damaged differently under the same extreme condition? How do different extreme conditions damage the same biological sample? What are the implications on the analyses?
The basic underlying methods of analysis could be the same, but technical tweaking is highly recommended. Today, we have significantly increased our analytical capacity by developing what is commonly referred to as Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). Running my samples on at least one type of NGS platforms is central to my project. In addition to a vigorous laboratory preparation, this technique generates a vast amount of data that is analysed through advanced informatics. I am also looking into the possibilities of repairing the damaged DNA artificially, knowing that the forensic science community has been very reluctant about the idea.
F: Do you build your own informatics tools for data analysis?
MEK: Fortunately, the bioinformatics community has, for quite a while, been on the task of facilitating the extraction and interpretation of raw data. I learned how to navigate the operating systems (Mac, Linux, Windows) and send various commands. I use the command line and apply the appropriate steps that I learned from the NGS data analysis workshops. I also look forward to applying my knowledge in R for statistical interpretation and data visualisation. I’m also trying to learn the Python programming language.
F: One wouldn’t necessarily expect that of a forensic scientist from the image that popular culture generally gives of you.
MEK: Yes, a lot of effort is being done to break the image of the “astronaut on the crime scene that will arrest the bad guys”. Today I feel that people more readily accept the idea that it is a discipline that has its basic foundations in hard sciences such as chemistry, mathematics, biology and physics – meaning that it bathes in uncertainty. I understand the disappointment of people who chose this career purely because they wanted to fight crime in heroic and absolute ways, but demystifying forensic science is only fair to all of us.
F: When your brain isn’t on planet science, where can it be found, doing what?
MEK: My peers might disagree, but I feel like I go back to humanity when I go outside of the lab. I do miss the human being and its imperfection. I miss social, political, economic issues, dynamics between humans, one-to-one relationships. I don’t want to sound radical, but at work I am removed from all social constructs, emotions and prejudice. No matter how relevant to you is a specific investigation, a bloodstain is a bloodstain, and the likelihood that it comes from this suspect rather than anyone else is ideally calculated in the same way.
F: Would you like some more tea?
MEK: No, thank you very much. Where do you keep the biscuits though?