Young Investigators are vital to the future of forensic science
An interview with Professor Walther Parson.
Instead of focusing the spotlight on a new Investigator, this month’s blog features a conversation with Professor Walther Parson, leader of the Forensic Genomics group at the Institute of Legal Medicine, Medical University of Innsbruck. Professor Parson is an important role model and mentor of forensic scientists and researchers at the start of their careers. He believes in acknowledging the dedication and achievements of his team, and in celebrating the emerging powers of all new Investigators.
Recent publications from his lab and its collaborators include papers on subjects as diverse as age estimation from semen samples, tracking demographic changes in modern Mexico, analysis of the remains of Holocaust victims and assays to identify body fluids through targeted mRNA massively parallel sequencing.
QIAGEN: You have always supported students in your lab. Some of these have been showcased as Young Investigators recently. How important are the Young Investigators to the work that is achieved in your lab?
WP: QIAGEN’s initiative to acknowledge accomplishments of young scientists is much appreciated. It is difficult to successfully apply for funding, as the nature of forensic research is generally too applied for most calls. The Young Investigators program allows emerging scientists to present their research and themselves, which is important for their careers. After all, research is a key element of forensic practice, which would soon become outdated without. We need to further extend funding programs and awards dedicated to young forensic scientists.
QIAGEN: What would you recommend to a young or newly-qualified scientist who is interested in working in the field of forensic genomics?
WP: The answer depends on the topic of interest. Forensic research involves diverse aspects, e.g., sampling techniques at crime scenes, technical, wet-lab based methods or the development of concepts and software tools for analysis and interpretation.
Technical methods for human identification have by and large reached their consolidation phase. The interpretation of DNA results in the context of activity levels at the crime scene is however still limited and many questions are asked that can be generalized and turned into experimental designs.
The field further lacks education and training. We need more qualified teachers to train academics, practitioners and those receiving the genetic information in the law enforcement process.
QIAGEN: What current or future projects in your lab are suitable for the contribution of a dedicated young Investigator?
WP: Our research group has traditionally been interested in driving technical developments that improve the performance of molecular genetic assays, particularly for challenging samples. We have recently moved to applying this knowledge to develop tools that can be used to predict appearance, ancestry and age of the sample donor from DNA, which is also known as Forensic DNA Phenotyping. This process is still continuing, we probably just scratched the surface of technical possibilities.
We are also motivated to continue our research in the field of non-human DNA analysis, which offers a wide spectrum of applications. In addition to technical developments, we have been supporting the field with the curation of databases to quality-control and quantify mitochondrial DNA (EMPOP) and STR evidence (STRidER). This involves collaboration with experts in Mathematics, Statistics and IT. There is a lot more research to be done.
QIAGEN: You are in the judge’s panel of QIAGEN’s first Young Investigator Award. As a judge, what encouragement or advice would you give to potential award entrants/ applicants?
WP: Despite the applied nature of forensic research, I value novelty and originality. New ideas need to be supported. Unfortunately, they usually do not target low hanging fruits, but involve the risk of failing (with respect to positive outcome expectations). Still, academic programs, such as Ph.D. tracks, can be designed in a way that risky aspects are included, for the sake of moving the field. However, they should also contain elements that allow for the accomplishment of a Ph.D. career.
We hope you enjoyed Professor Parson’s perspective on forensic genetics and forensic science research, now and in the future.