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UCL Centre for the Forensic Sciences

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Trace evidence dynamics

Our research within the field of trace evidence dynamics concerns understanding the behaviour of trace evidence in different contexts and within different environments over space and time. Developing an evidence base for how trace evidence behaves in this way enables the interpretation of particular traces found in specific places and times in a context sensitive manner. It also provides the means for trace evidence to offer robust intelligence and evidence during investigations and crime reconstructions, and to establish evidence based collection approaches. 

Our work covers a range of different types of trace evidence including:

Geoforensic science

Geoforensic science

Our research within the field of geoforensic science aims to identify and develop the application of environmental materials to forensic investigations. 

Soil/sediments are highly complex and have physical, biological and chemical attributes that can be indicators of specific locations. Our research addresses a range of different geoforensic materials and we are developing approaches that can be used to compare soil/sediment samples from known locations and relevant forensic exhibits such as vehicles and footwear. 

Current research

  • Physical approaches such as mineralogy and quartz grain surface texture analysis.
  • Elemental chemical approaches. 
  • Biological approaches that address the organic profiles of samples using HPLC.
  • Developing the use of diatoms and pollen as environmental indicators.

Research projects

  • Developing suites of independent analytical approaches for forensic quartz grain surface texture analysis.
  • Organic signatures for soil/sediment differentiation.
  • Inorganic approaches for the analysis of soils/sediments and discerning mixed provenance samples.
  • Forensic limnology: assessing the value of diatoms for forensic investigations.
  • The role of geoforensic analysis for establishing the journey histories of illicit materials and IEDs.

Researchers

Dr Ruth Morgan
Kelly Cheshire
Georgia McCulloch
Kirstie Scott
Beth Wilks
Dr Nigel Cameron
Dr Simon Gibbons
Dr Lewis Griffin
Dr Jonathan Holmes
Dr Vivienne Jones
Dr Andrew Newell
Professor Neil Rose
Trace DNA

Trace DNA

Our research within forensic DNA analysis aims to investigate the spatial and temporal dynamics of trace DNA (DNA that can be recovered, but its biological source, whether from a body fluid or shed skin cells or a combination of both, is unknown). 

In absence of this knowledge, it is often difficult for forensic scientists to evaluate how or when trace DNA was deposited on the surface from which it was recovered. 

Current research

  • The amount, the quality, and the persistence of DNA that has been deposited in a range of ways, such as through touching an item or speaking within its vicinity.
  • The potential onward transfer of such DNA. 
  • The generation of empirical data to assist the interpretation and evaluation of trace DNA when it is recovered from a crime scene or a pertinent exhibit.

Research projects

  • Establishing empirical evidence bases for the occurrence of transfers of trace DNA.
  • Identification of multiple transfers of trace DNA.

Researchers

 
Dr Georgina Meakin
Dr Ruth Morgan
Professor Mark Thomas
Gunshot residue

Gun-shot residue (GSR)

Our research into Gunshot Residue GSR aims to improve the capacity to utilise this form of evidence in the investigation and reconstruction of incidents involving firearms. 

Current research

  • Experimental studies and the simulation of shooting incidents, with a focus on improving understanding of the behaviour and dynamics of GSR.
  • Investigating the transfer, secondary transfer, persistence and distribution of GSR following a firearm discharge, and providing empirical data that can be used to underpin the interpretation of this form of trace evidence in casework. 
  • Informing investigative procedures and protocols, with a view to maximising the value of GSR evidence to an investigation and minimising the potential for contamination. 
  • Primarily exploring the use of (automated) SEM-EDX for GSR analysis, but also applying complementary analysis techniques including X-ray fluorescence. 
  • Exploring the application of Bayesian Networks (BNs) to the interpretation of forensic evidence in legal contexts.

Research projects

  • Establishing empirical evidence bases for multiple transfers of GSR; the implications for interpretation.
  • The application of GSR recognition tools for forensic analysis of other forms of trace evidence.
  • Developing approaches for the visualisation of GSR.

Researchers

 
Dr James French
Dr Ruth Morgan
Michaela Regan
Professor Adam Gibson 
Explosive residues

Explosives

Explosive attack is the main tool of modern day terrorism, and thus is a key area of research in the forensic and chemical sciences for detection of clandestine bomb factories and public space monitoring. Detection of small amounts of explosive is also important for environmental monitoring around areas where explosives are used routinely, such as ranges. Our work covers trace explosive detection in the vapour phase, and in surface and wastewater. 

Current research

  • Post-blast scene examination of explosive residues.
  • Pre-emptive detection of hidden or discarded trace explosive material.
  • Developing highly selective and sensitive chemical sensors (electrochemical and fluorimetric), as well as powerful analytical techniques such as UHPLC-MS and electron microscopy. 
  • Assessing passive environmental monitoring techniques for sample collection in the field.

Research projects

  • Establishing detection methods for precursor chemicals in the wastewater system.
  • The application of nanomaterials in molecular recognition and chemical sensing devices.
  • Detection of vapour phase precursors relevant to IEDs using carbon-based nanomaterials as gas sensors for explosive precursor detection.
  • The use of synthesised metal-organic frameworks for the establishment of a sensory array for a portable explosive detection platform.

Researchers

 
Nadia Abdul-Karim
Gwyn Evans
Sally Gamble
Monika Jurcic
Will Peveler
Dr Ruth Morgan
Dr Luiza Campos
Professor Tony Kenyon
Professor Ivan Parkin
Professor Neal Skipper