My Experience at the Undergraduate Workshop Focusing on Forensics

The following was written by Briahnna Austin, and undergraduate student from University of California Riverside.

Briahnna Austin

Briahnna Austin

Statistics is the interchange and communication of everyday information.

This past February of 2016, I was fortunate enough to attend my first SAMSI workshop. The topic was forensic science and I was completely overjoyed and anxious, not only for the material I was going to engage in, but also excited for the interesting people I was going to interact and converse with. Coming from an undergraduate biology background, and aspiring to go into graduate level biostatistics, I have a particular fondness for interdisciplinary fields. This interdisciplinary material I was able to find during SAMSI’s Forensic Science Workshop; the purpose of this workshop was to give insight about how statistics, mathematics, data, and scientific principles amalgamate to form what we call forensic science.

Upon my arrival I was able to meet a professor from Duke at the airport; this was one of the most amazing coincidences since SAMSI has ties with Duke; I took it as a sign the workshop has something important in store for me, which it did. On the first day of the workshop, I was able to learn about comparative bullet analysis, retail sampling, and latent fingerprinting. The speakers highlighted the importance of decision-making and techniques choices. In forensic science, there is a large toolkit of information to pull from, and this toolkit gets larger as technology grows so it is our job as the statistician, investigator, or forensic scientist to make responsible and informed selections. During the first day, I was also able to see a forensics science lab; this is where movies and TV shows portray a lot of action going on, but it is different in the real world. Going to the forensic lab, gave a great opportunity to clear up assumptions and see what the real “CSI” does on a daily basis. The director of the crime lab showed my group around the facilities, and I kept hoping to see something scary or something crazy pop out of the wall, but no luck.

two lab workers

Lab workers at the Wake County Crime Lab.

During the next day of the workshop, I was able to learn about the uniqueness fallacy, statistical reliability, contextual/confirmation bias as well as a Bayesian model for fingerprint statistics. This gave insight into how important reproducibility of work as well as professionalism comes into play. In this field of work, it is essential to keep out biases and ensuring statistical reliability can assist with the types of bias we went over. The take away from both days was the idea of accountability of your work and passion for the field. Every speaker enjoyed his or her line of work. Their commitment to the field was inspiring, and shows first hand how forensic science is a collaborative effort, and when working open dialogue and communication is key to success.

Students listening to a lecture.

Students listening to a lecture.

The last large take away I acquired from this workshop was regarding networking. One of my most vivid memories during the SAMSI workshop, beside the awesome food, was communicating with the post-doc student, and undergraduate students. At the end of the first day I was able to talk to post-doc students, which help steer me in the right direction for my educational future. I am glad SAMSI provided the time to network with post-doc students; they were very friendly and funny. Not only did I network with the post-doc students, but the students attending the workshop as well. The SAMSI workshop gave me the opportunity to make new friends. Moving forward in education and career aspiration, I will be calling upon others for different aspects in STEM. Looking around the conference room and realizing these students will be the next set of forensic scientists, investigators, statisticians, and researchers, it is important we are able to network with one another. I would definitely recommend this workshop to other students and I encourage student to seek out other SAMSI opportunities as well. Lastly, do not forget to take many pictures; looking back, I realized how scenic Durham is and wish I had more pictures.

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