Forensic Chemistry and Physical Evidence with Dr Kari Pitts (#44)

We talk about Kari's journey to forensic science, working with physical evidence, and how it's not quite like CSI.

Forensic Chemistry and Physical Evidence with Dr Kari Pitts (#44) cover image

Dr Kari Pitts is a Forensic Chemist and Mineralogist in the Physical Evidence Team of ChemCentre’s Forensic Science Laboratory. She holds a PhD and a Masters in Forensic Science from UWA, and a Bachelor of Science with Honours from Curtin University. Working at ChemCentre for nearing 16 years, her expertise is trace evidence; including paint, glass, gunshot residue, soils, fibres, and anything else that isn’t biological, a drug or radioactive. Dr Pitts has reported over 300 cases and given expert evidence in criminal trials in Australia and New Zealand. With a passion for outreach, she was the 2016 RACI WA Bayliss youth lecturer and a 2019-20 Science and Technology Australia Superstar of STEM.

In our conversation, we talk about Kari’s journey to forensic science, working with physical evidence, and how it’s not quite like CSI.

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Show Notes

[00:00:55] Kari’s goal of becoming a mad scientist.
[00:01:09] Curiosity fed by science at school.
[00:02:18] A strength in chemistry.
[00:04:09] What makes a course ‘forensic’
[00:04:16] Chemistry as applied to the law.
[00:05:26] Learning legal aspects of the field, eg. chain of custory, evidence law.
[00:07:07] Understanding the journey and context of the samples, and the limitations of the processes used.
[00:08:08] Additional challenges of sample integrity and control.
[00:10:25] Process and standardisation of evidence management.
[00:11:38] Collection procedures dependent on nature of the crime.
[00:13:15] Order of execution for testing.
[00:15:01] There’s always something different and exciting to do and puzzle out.
[00:15:45] The process is standard, the reconstruction or findings are where it is most engaging.
[00:16:23] The sheer variety in trace evidence.
[00:16:58] Unusual requests.
[00:18:12] Discriminating for egg?
[00:21:14] Getting specific with common substances.
[00:22:44] Consider white paint with low evidential value.
[00:24:38] Evidential value and time and cost factors.
[00:25:13] Kari’s favourite instrument.
[00:25:42] Balancing resources to get answers or form an opinion.
[00:27:58] Part of the job is testifying as an expert in court.
[00:28:11] The importance of being able to communicate the science to laypeople.
[00:29:47] Media portrayal of the process vs reality.
[00:32:41] Training and strategies for public speaking in a legal context.
[00:37:10] Outreach is valuable to the community and also helps with the public speaking.
[00:38:36] CSI and popular culture makes the concepts more accessible to the public.
[00:42:06] Accessible, but not exactly accurate.
[00:42:48] A popular but difficult field to get into.
[00:44:06] You need to love the science first before you consider forensics.
[00:45:20] Skill up to give your self a competitive point of difference in the job market.
[00:45:57] Changes in the field, inclusion and diversity.
[00:49:49] Cultural changes in work environment making technical careers viable.
[00:50:35] All workers are people first. Support your people.
[00:54:11] Brain drain and the leaky pipeline is a waste.
[00:56:53] The scope of opportunities for science with a forensics background.
[01:00:11] STEMM is a way of thinking, not necessarily a job.
[01:01:40] Critical thinking.
[01:04:07] Bonus Question 1: What hobby or interest do you have that is most unrelated to your field of work?
[01:06:41] Bonus Question 2: Which childhood book holds the strongest memories for you?
[01:09:34] Bonus Question 3: What advice you would give someone who wants to do what you do? Or what advice should they ignore?
[01:12:00] Finding out more about Kari and the field of forensics.
[01:12:41] Deadly Science and bringing resources and opportunities to regional areas.

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