Shining the spotlight on underrepresentation and advancements in forensic science

Intersecting science and society, forensics and toxicology are prevalent in multiple aspects of life. Forensics, in short, is the application of science to solve a crime. It is often coupled with toxicology – a branch of forensics that deals with the study of toxic substances and drugs in a legal investigation.1,2

Image Credit: felipe caparros/Shutterstock

Image Credit: felipe caparros/Shutterstock

However, forensics is not solely associated with illegal substances and is classed as a multidisciplinary science that combines different natural and life sciences to make discoveries and draw accurate conclusions. A great example of forensics’ multidisciplinary nature is forensic anthropology – a branch of forensics that focuses on anatomy and biology to establish a deceased individual’s defining characteristics.3

At Pittcon, forensics and toxicology is one of the eight educational tracks. Pittcon brings together leading minds in research and industry to foster collaboration and innovation in these two key areas important to public health and social justice. In particular, the conference will explore lesser-known topics within the overarching fields of forensics and toxicology.

The Need For Representation in Forensic Anthropology

Forensic anthropology is the study of human remains with the primary purpose of identification.4 This branch combines biology and anthropology in a legal context and is vital to uncovering information critical to legal cases. In particular, during the identification process, forensic anthropologists rely on biological profiles – estimations about the sex, age, ancestry, and stature of a population.5

However, some groups are underrepresented in forensics and lack the information that makes up a comprehensive and useful biological profile, most notably Native and Hispanic Americans. This lack of representation in forensic databases creates a bottleneck for forensic scientists when working on cases that deal with individuals of this group and limits their ability to identify unknown persons and solve crimes associated with underrepresented groups.

Nevertheless, artificial intelligence (AI) promises to overcome these challenges. One such example includes using AI to predict sex or make age estimates based on large sets of complex data and build biological profiles for groups who do not currently have effective ones.6

The annual Pittcon Conference and Exposition will be host to forensics and toxicology experts and will feature presentations on representation in forensic science and the technological advancements that are helping to address current challenges in the field.

In particular, Nicollette Appel’s talk on “Improving forensic identification of unknown Native and Hispanic Americans: results, progress, and future endeavors” will delve into the impact of implementing Native and Hispanic American biological data into forensic databases to establish inclusive biological profiles for previously underrepresented populations.5

Lead presenter and researcher Nicollette Appel is a Ph.D. student at the University of New Mexico in the Office of the Medical Investigator.7 Appel and her research team are using artificial intelligence methods to compile data on the sex, age, ancestry, and stature of these currently underrepresented groups in forensic science. Their goal is to improve the forensic identification of these populations and provide information that forensic anthropologists can use to compare measurements against. In particular, the information from this project can be used to create the first-ever equations to estimate the stature of Native American populations.

With an educational background in forensic anthropology and biology, Appel has served as a forensic scientist and educator with research interests in human variation, ancestry estimation, biocultural anthropology, and skeletal biology. Her work emphasizes the unique role of anthropology in answering scientific questions and the importance of representing minority groups and native populations in forensic identification, which is critical to solving cases.

Advancing the Fields of Forensics and Toxicology

The Pittcon presentation “NIJ - Innovations in Technology to Advance Forensic Science” by Dr. Igor Lednev, a distinguished chemistry professor at the University of Albany, will showcase some of the new discoveries in the field of science and technology and how they can be applied to forensics in innovative ways to enhance the field.8

For example, Lednev recently published a paper in Analytical Chemistry on how innovations in vibrational spectroscopy can be applied to help identify samples of bodily fluids, drugs, and various forms of evidence at crime scenes in a portable and accurate way.9 In particular, technological advances such as spectroscopy are becoming useful due to their ability to make forensic procedures more efficient.

In addition to advancements in technology for forensic science, other talks featured at Pittcon will highlight biochemical and analytical methods that have the potential to aid in forensic investigations.10 From advanced instrumentation capable of handling analytical problems in forensic investigations to the ultra-sensitive detection of synthetic drugs, researchers and industry leaders are continuously innovating solutions to current challenges in the field. Furthermore, tools like Raman spectroscopy, microscopy, and liquid chromatography will also be presented and discussed.

Forensics and Toxicology at Pittcon

By representing minority and underrepresented groups in forensic research and emphasizing the critical role of science and technology in the field, the presentations outlined above illuminate the industry’s commitment to improving forensics and toxicology. Continuous innovation drives the trajectory of these topics to provide more inclusive and impactful answers to society’s challenges involving anthropology and law.

Pittcon will also platform some of the advanced analytical chemistry methods and technologies used across the field of forensic science and toxicology.10 Some featured topics include the ultrasensitive detection of drugs in blood, using fluorescence spectroscopy to track microplastics, and using Raman spectroscopy to analyze fiber evidence and blood traces. GenTech Scientific, Perkin Elmer, and Labconco, to name a few, are some of the leading companies being showcased at Pittcon to highlight how their life science solutions are helping to drive the forensics and toxicology industry forward.

Pittcon is a collaborative environment where forensic science and toxicology advancement can flourish. From learning about the technological advancements that are influencing forensic science to address the inclusion of native and minority groups, Pittcon aims to inform, educate, collaborate, and innovate for a more inclusive approach to forensics and toxicology that will impact society at large. 11,12

For more details on these presentations and events, please Pittcon’s website.13

References and further reading

  1. Forensic Science | NIST. (2013) NIST, 20 Aug. Available at: www.nist.gov/forensic-science. Accessed 1 February 2023.
  2. AZoLifeSciences. “What Is Forensic Toxicology?” (2020) News-Medical.net, 14 Feb. 2020, Available at: www.azolifesciences.com/article/What-is-Forensic-Toxicology.aspx. Accessed 1 February 2023.
  3. Forensic Anthropology. (2023) Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Available at: https://naturalhistory.si.edu/education/teaching-resources/social-studies/forensic-anthropology. Accessed 1 February 2023.
  4. Madadin, Mohammed, et al. (2022) Research Trends in Forensic Anthropology: A Bibliometric Analysis. Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, vol. 86, p. 102305, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jflm.2022.102305. Accessed 1 February 2023.
  5. Pittcon - Session. (2023) Secure-Platform.com, pittcon.secure-platform.com/2023/solicitations/1/sessiongallery/220. Accessed 1 February 2023.
  6. Galante, Nicola, et al. (2022) Applications of Artificial Intelligence in Forensic Sciences: Current Potential Benefits, Limitations and Perspectives.” International Journal of Legal Medicine. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00414-022-02928-5. Accessed 1 February 2023.
  7. Nikki Appel : Anthropology | the University of New Mexico. (2015) Unm.edu, anthropology.unm.edu/people/grad-students/profile/nikki-appel.html. Accessed 1 February 2023
  8. Pittcon - Session. (2023) Secure-Platform.com, pittcon.secure-platform.com/2023/solicitations/1/sessiongallery/18. Accessed 1 February 2023.
  9. Weber, Alexis, et al. (2023) Innovative Vibrational Spectroscopy Research for Forensic Application.” Analytical Chemistry, 95(1), pp. 167–205, Available at: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.analchem.2c05094 
  10. Pittcon - Session. (2023) Secure-Platform.com, pittcon.secure-platform.com/2023/solicitations/1/sessiongallery/532. Accessed 1 February. 2023.
  11. Technical Program - Pittcon Conference + Expo. (2023) Pittcon Conference + Expo, 19 Jan. 2023, Available at: https://pittcon.org/technical-program/. Accessed 1 February 2023.
  12. Pittcon - Session Gallery. (2023) Secure-Platform.com, 2023, pittcon.secure-platform.com/2023/solicitations/1/sessiongallery?searchParams=%7B%22pageIndex%22%3A0%2C%22sortMode%22%3A%22SessionName%22%2C%22sortDirection%22%3A%22Ascending%22%2C%22sortByFieldId%22%3Anull%2C%22displayMode%22%3A%22List%22%2C%22filterByFieldValues%22%3A%5B%5D%2C%22filterByTextValue%22%3A%22%22%2C%22filterByFavorites%22%3Afalse%2C%22filterByScheduleRoomIds%22%3A%5B%5D%2C%22filterBySessionTypeIds%22%3A%5B12%5D%2C%22filterByScheduleDayIds%22%3A%5B%5D%2C%22filterByScheduleTimeSlotIds%22%3A%5B%5D%2C%22isScheduleOtherEventSearchAllowed%22%3Atrue%7D. Accessed 1 February 2023.
  13. Home - Pittcon Conference + Expo. (2023) Pittcon Conference + Expo, 19 Jan. 2023, Available at: https://pittcon.org/. Accessed 1 February 2023.‌

About Pittcon

Pittcon® is a registered trademark of The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, a Pennsylvania non-profit organization. Co-sponsored by the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh, Pittcon is the premier annual conference and exposition on laboratory science.

Proceeds from Pittcon fund science education and outreach at all levels, kindergarten through adult. Pittcon donates more than a million dollars a year to provide financial and administrative support for various science outreach activities including science equipment grants, research grants, scholarships and internships for students, awards to teachers and professors, and grants to public science centers, libraries and museums.

Visit pittcon.org for more information.


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Last updated: Feb 1, 2024 at 7:04 AM

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