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Graduate stories - publishing a world-first in research

16 January 2015

This week, our forensic science team made headlines around the world when – in a world-first – they managed to recover fingerprints from the feathers and eggs of birds of prey.

What makes it even more special is the fact that the whole project was thought up by one of our students – Helen McMorris.

She came up with the idea for her Honours dissertation, got the project off the ground, carried out all the research herself, and is now first-author of the published article in the prestigious forensic science journal Science & Justice!

Here, she tells us how she came up with the idea, about her experience at Abertay, what she is doing now that she has graduated, and what she hopes to do next.

How did you come up with the idea for this project?

In 2010 I was lucky to spend some time with crime scene examiners in Fife on a placement as part of my course. One of the scene examiners had used fingerprint powder on a pigeon feather to see if they could recover a fingerprint, having seen a character from CSI do it! Nobody thought it was possible in real life, so he was quite surprised when he managed it. However, he didn’t write the method down, so it wasn’t possible for anyone to replicate what he had done.

I mentioned this to my supervisor Dennis Gentles, and together we decided to see if we could achieve the same results but on a larger scale, swapping the pigeon for a bird of prey to see if we could help those in the fight against wildlife crime to create that vital link between the bird of prey and the individual responsible.

It's great that Abertay encourage you to come up with your own research topic for your dissertation. It allows you to work on research that you genuinely have a passion in and could make a new discovery with.

How does it feel having your research published?

Unbelievable! It was a risk trying something never attempted before, not knowing if I'd have anything worth writing about at the end for my dissertation. My parents thought I was mad. But the day we recovered that first fingerprint and realised we were onto something special was a moment I'll never forget! Little did we know then what lay ahead of us - it's been an incredible experience and one that I'm very proud to have shared with the forensic science staff at Abertay.

Why forensic science?

Everybody thinks when you tell them you want to study forensic science that you're a fan of CSI, but I'm one of the few who have never really watched it.

Having said that, I am a huge fan of Silent Witness and, although the programme is centred on a team of pathologists and isn’t exactly 100 per cent accurate to real life, I found the forensic techniques fascinating and - having an eye for detail and being someone who always wants to know how and why something happened - I decided I wanted a career in forensic science catching criminals for a living!

I chose Abertay because the content of the course is so varied and is taught by people who have years of experience from working as crime scene examiners, forensic biologists and chemists, using their personal experiences as examples to show us, as students, how the science being taught in the classroom is used in the real world of forensics.

What did you enjoy most about the course and Abertay?

My first love in forensic science has been - and always will be - the crime scene itself, so I enjoyed the crime scene modules the most which are taught by Dennis Gentles, a retired scenes of crime officer. His love and enthusiasm for the job was so infectious!

In first year I suffered from terrible homesickness and almost gave up on my studies. But as things started to fall into place and I settled into life here in Dundee, Abertay began to feel very much like home.

I love how it's a small, city-centre based university with a big personality, full of talented students who are taught by staff who push you to your limit and then push you that little bit more to get the very best out of you every time.

What do you want to do next?

My current job involves... Fingerprints! Comparing them and trying to identify them rather than recovering them first hand from a surface type or object.

But I'd love to have a career in research. The fingerprints on birds of prey story is only just beginning and I'd love to see what more we can do with it. Can we get DNA from a finger mark? Could we get fingerprints on the traps which are so commonly used to catch them? I can't wait to find out!

What advice would you give to current or prospective students?

Never be afraid to break barriers - it's part of what makes Abertay what it is! Take a risk in your studies to try something new and you never know where it might lead!

To find out more about our Forensic Sciences course, please visit our course pages.

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