The tireless passion and dedication of ESR’s science experts shone brightly at this year’s Science New Zealand Awards, held at Parliament on Tuesday 6 December, with several ESR staff honoured for their cutting-edge research and commitment to improve society through applied science.
The ESR awardees include Forensic Toxicology Science Leader Dr Helen Poulsen, who received the Lifetime Achievement Award for the major contribution she continues to make to forensic toxicology; Dr Maarten Kruijver, Senior Statistician Developer, who received the Early Career Researcher Award for his mathematical expertise that plays a key role in the revolutionary STRmix™ software, which helping resolve mixed DNA samples previously thought unsolvable and brining answers to victims and communities; and members of ESR’s Drugs in Wastewater Team, led by Senior Scientist Andrew Chappell, who received the Team Award for their cutting-edge work harnessing the power of wastewater to understand drug usage trends in Aotearoa New Zealand.
These awardees joined scientists and researchers from ESR’s six fellow Crown Research Institutes and Callaghan Innovation.
‘Helping people by doing the work I'm doing’
- Dr Helen Poulsen, Lifetime Achievement Awardee
As a forensic toxicology expert, Dr Helen Poulsen continues to make a positive difference to the health, safety and wellbeing of communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Helen marked 40 years’ service at ESR/DSIR in 2022, during which she has lent her wealth of expertise in drug chemistry to innumerable trials, coronial hearings, and panels, ensuring science-based evidence remains front and centre in Aotearoa New Zealand’s judicial processes and public policy.
“The work we do is mainly for Police and for the coroners. We're looking for drug use, whether it might be medicinal or recreational,” Helen says.
Helen’s colleague Dr Wendy Popplewell, ESR Forensic Specialist Analytical Service Team Leader, reflects on the significance of Helen’s career and contributions: “Helen has helped give answers to countless whānau, including those with loved ones whose deaths would otherwise go unexplained.”
Testament to Helen’s eminence is her appointment by Cabinet in 2020 to chair the Independent Expert Panel on Drug Driving, as the Government moves to implement roadside saliva drug testing. It’s no overstatement to say Helen’s work is protecting lives by making roads in Aotearoa New Zealand safer from drug harm.
“We've been collecting data on drug use by deceased drivers, and that data was used to highlight that 'drug use' wasn't just alcohol – other drugs were also an issue on the road. And that bought in a change to legislation,” says Helen.
“I'm feeling like I'm helping people by doing the work I'm doing.”
‘We developed the software to analyse the DNA mixtures in the most unbiased and efficient way’
– Dr Maarten Kruijver, Early Career Researcher Awardee
Six years after completing his PhD, ESR forensic science expert Dr Maarten Kruijver is playing a crucial role in ensuring fair and equitable outcomes prevail in courtrooms worldwide. Now an internationally recognised expert in forensic genetics, probabilistic genotyping, and forensic statistics, Maarten joined the team behind ESR’s revolutionary STRmix™ forensic software in 2016. STRmix™ empowers investigators to resolve DNA mixtures once considered too complex to be analysed, and with this brings answers to victims, families, and communities.
“In some cases we don't actually have DNA profiles of the missing persons, and we have to proceed indirectly. That's where our software comes in,” says Maarten.
Maarten has brought to STRmix™ his expertise in mathematics, working as a Senior Statistician Developer within the STRmix™ team, which received acclaim in 2018 after winning the Prime Minister’s Science Prize. Maarten’s cutting-edge work to extend the scope of forensic software so it can help identify missing persons and the victims of disasters, based on kinship and mixtures, is a fine example of a scientist harnessing technology to innovate and solve problems previously thought unsolvable.
“We developed the software to analyse the DNA mixtures in the most unbiased and efficient way that we think is possible,” says Maarten.
On the significance of Maarten’s contribution to forensic science, STRmix™ Manager Björn Sutherland notes: “Maarten's contributed to the increased ability of forensic laboratories to help the justice system to resolve criminal cases, which ultimately has a benefit to the community.”
‘ESR has expertise in all of the areas required’
– Andrew Chappell, Drugs in Wastewater Team Awardee
The term ‘wastewater testing’ has become familiar to many New Zealanders over the past few years, as this once novel form of epidemiological surveillance became a key tool in detecting the spread of COVID-19. Before ESR applied cutting-edge wastewater techniques to public health surveillance, a team of passionate ESR scientists led by Andrew Chappell set about harnessing the power of wastewater to understand drug usage trends in Aotearoa New Zealand.
“We collect samples of wastewater from around the country, and we extract the drugs and metabolites from them. We measure the amount in there and then we do some back calculations, which allow us to estimate drug consumption in communities,” says Andrew.
“ESR was approached by Police to try to develop the science so that this could be used by Police and the health agencies across New Zealand,” says team member and Senior Science Leader Dr Brent Gilpin.
The value of these insights was quickly apparent and strong relationships have formed between the Drugs in Wastewater Team and the health and justice systems. With its interest in illicit drug use at the community rather than individual level, wastewater drug testing aligns with the Government’s focus on wellbeing, approaching drug use as a health issue. The insights yielded by ESR’s team empower the health system to see where support and resources are needed and redirect them accordingly. To date, ESR’s Drugs in Wastewater Team has applied wastewater testing methods to measure consumption of illicit drugs including methamphetamine, MDMA, cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl.
As Andrew notes, the work is the result of team effort. “ESR has expertise in all areas required: we've got environmental chemistry, toxicology, and experts in drug chemistry. The wastewater testing programme pulls them all together, which is why it works well.”
The Team is especially grateful to New Zealand Police and staff at councils and other organisations around Aotearoa New Zealand, who gather samples from wastewater treatment facilities and send these to ESR for analyses, as well as ESR’s Forensic Specialised Analytical Service and Drug Chemistry teams.
Team members include: Andrew Chappell, Bridget Armstrong, Brent Gilpin, Sara McCormick, Kim Nguyen, Kaitlyn Phung, Kathryn Taylor, Ben Waite, Seamus Watson, and Varun Thakur (ESR), Detective Inspector Blair MacDonald, Marisa Cliff and John O’Keeffe (New Zealand Police) (with recognition to wastewater treatment plant operators from across Aotearoa New Zealand).