One of the key instigators of STRmix™, ESR principal scientist Dr John Buckleton, says an “aligning of the planets” was key to producing the software that has dramatically increased the reliability of DNA evidence in court.
STRmix™, ESR’s innovative forensic software, has taken out New Zealand’s top science award, The Prime Minister’s Science Prize.
Dr Buckleton says before STRmix™, complex mixtures of DNA profiles – any mixture of two or more people – were unusable.
“You could tell the evidence was there, but there was no manner to express that in court in a sustainable way,” he says.
“What STRmix™ does is draw an evidential inference from a more complex mixture, whereas previously, there were just not the methods to draw any inference from such evidence.
“STRmix™ can take a person of interest, compare him with a profile from a crime scene and produce an inference whether that person is included or excluded.
“We are told we’ve taken usable DNA evidence in the US courts from 40 per cent to 70 per cent so we’re not just exonerating more false donors and convicting more true donors, we’re advancing the cause of justice in the US, and more broadly.”
Dr Buckleton says STRmix™ uses “big computing” and stock standard maths.
“What it does is trial a whole lot of solutions – it’s like a game of hot and cold. That’s how we teach it and the analogy works really well.”
He describes being awarded the Prime Minister’s Science Prize as a “great honour”.
“It is the high point of my career and I am very grateful that we have the whole team recognised – they are a great team and it is fantastic working with them.”
Dr Buckleton is quick to acknowledge the work of his colleagues, fellow ESR scientist Jo Bright and Duncan Taylor in South Australia.
“‘Without these two fantastic co-workers nothing was going to happen. Their work ethic, their creativity – with Jo and Duncan, it couldn’t fail. Without them, it couldn’t succeed. The planets just aligned.”
“As well as great colleagues, there was a bit of the number eight wire mentality, a bit of support from management and the government – it all came from that”.
Dr Buckleton, who has won many awards, including being recognised in last year’s Science New Zealand Awards, says he lives, eats and breathes forensics. “It’s my whole life. I wake up and do it, and I dream about it at night. “
“It’s just fantastic – the problem solving aspects, the camaraderie of working on important issues.
“And if I go to my grave thinking, I’ve made some contribution to justice - that would be good.”