“It’s a real honour to be part of the team that won the 2018 Prime Minister’s Science Prize for STRmix™,” says Catherine McGovern. “That software is incredible when you think about it. It’s helping transform the way the forensic community worldwide approaches DNA evidence interpretation. t’s a cutting-edge technology developed and grown from a Crown Research Institute here in New Zealand, in association with our colleagues at Forensic Science South Australia, and I just feel like it’s a phenomenal privilege to be part of such an exciting development.”
When Catherine was at high school in Manurewa, Auckland, she hadn’t really considered a career in science. That was before she transferred from art to sciences in the sixth form and discovered she had a passion for biology. Her father was a police officer at the time and suggested she might be interested in forensics, so Catherine wrote a letter to respected forensic scientist and Government Analyst at DSIR Auckland, Margaret ‘Maggie’ Lawton. Maggie replied and told Catherine that if she wanted to get a career in forensics, she needed to get herself a good science degree.
Catherine didn’t hesitate. She enrolled in an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and molecular biology at The University of Auckland and, as luck would have it, just as she finished that, forensic science arrived as an option at the university, so she went into the inaugural year of their Master of Science in forensic science programme. Towards the end of her MSc, Catherine took on a permanent job as a DNA Databank technician in the Forensic Biology group at ESR in Auckland and finished her study part time.
Now Catherine is a science leader and the team lead looking after the scientific support and training for ESR’s STRmix™ customer base. The software tool has been used by ESR’s Forensic Biology group since 2012 to help with the interpretation of DNA profiles.
“I was pulled across from the Forensic Biology team about eight years ago to help handle the rapid uptake of STRmix™ by other labs,” Catherine explains. Catherine helps organises the implementation and validation of the STRmix™ suite of software in over 180 laboratories around the world. She is also involved in developing online training options and delivering technical training to ESR’s international customers.
“When we had the COVID-19 lockdowns, our team had to adapt rapidly,” she recalls. “Before that, we’d been on planes every month, heading to different labs around the world for training sessions. Then suddenly we were having to work out how to demonstrate the software remotely, using different training platforms and working to the different COVID restrictions in place in different countries around the world – including uncomfortable time zones, where we were having to be up and functioning at top form in the small hours of the morning to link in with places like the east coast of the United States. But the team really stepped up to the challenge.”
“For me, the most amazing thing about my job is getting to meet and interact with a whole host of different scientists from all over the world,” Catherine says. “I feel like I can really be part of making a difference – to each one of those scientist’s local laboratories, their individual workflows and their individual situations. It’s truly the best feeling to be part of such a global picture.”