This week, we’d like to introduce you to Dr. James Walker, a DNA expert with thirty years of experience in DNA analysis, and nineteen years in forensic science. James is also one of our highly-skilled team of facilitators at Forensic Outreach.
Here, he shares his experiences, stories and research. Read on to find his top tips for pursuing a career in forensic DNA analysis.
Describe yourself in one sentence.
A DNA expert that started in research, moved into DNA diagnostics and progressed into forensics as DNA evidence became pivotal in criminal investigations with the establishment of the National DNA Database.
Describe your current work and research.
[I managed] a team that explored all avenues of DNA testing to provide the police with evidence where standard DNA testing had failed. This covered low template DNA testing, Y-STR profiling (male specific), animal DNA – dog profiling and speciation, Mitochondrial DNA testing of bones and hair shafts, ethnic inference, familial searching – looking for relatives of the source of DNA recovered from an exhibit on the National DNA Database to track down the offender. In addition, [performed] the extraction of DNA from compromised and demanding samples such as chemically treated pathology specimens, urine, faeces, bones and teeth.
What inspired you to join this field?
I was fortunate to have fallen into working in the forensic field when I was given the opportunity to build up a facility to carry out DNA profiling on the behalf of the defence and also for its application in disputed paternity and relationship determinations. At the time DNA based diagnostics was an emerging technology. I was previously carrying out my PhD and post doctoral research at a time when molecular biology was emerging from being small science to becoming big science due to the international push to sequence the human genome. This provided a platform to being able to exploit DNA technology commercially.
Describe your education and career trajectory to this point.
I started out as a chemical analyst in a pharmaceutical company, then carried out biochemical and entomology research for the forestry commission in the control of insect born tree diseases (fluctuations of free amino acid levels in pine trees and its effect on aphid infestation; Dutch elm disease). This gave me a passion for Biochemistry and I then studied and completed a first degree in Biochemistry. Then I carried out research into the molecular basis of carbohydrate metabolism in mammalian cells during which gained a PhD at University of London in Molecular Genetics. After that I moved into the commercial field managing the laboratory of a DNA Diagnostics Company and then establishing DNA Forensic testing due to both fields using similar techniques – DNA extraction, PCR, sequencing, DNA profiling.
Tell us a story of something interesting you’ve worked on.
I was fortunate to be the project lead to recover DNA from 250 Australian and British soldiers excavated from a mass grave found at a village called Fromelles in North France where there had been a battle in World War I. The DNA profiles (Mitochondrial and Y-STR) of these skeletal remains were then compared to living relatives to assist in the identification of the soldiers. This was a 5 year project funded by both British and Australian Governments. Over half of the solders have been identified and their grave stones named in a formal cemetery. A key to the success of this project was the need to select the right samples from the skeletal remains and optimise the recovery of intact DNA.
What tips can you provide for people wishing to pursue a career in your field?
- Ensure you gain a good grounding in the sciences.
- Don’t specialise too soon.
- Take any opportunity you can to get work experience – this gives you a taster of what the work is like and allows you to talk to people in the field.
- Read popular science – such as biographies of famous scientists, New Scientist and similar publications provide a good means of gaining knowledge in all aspects of science.
- Working in any science related job can be a stepping stone to where you want to end up. Stay determined and you will eventually succeed in achieving your goals.
Your turn: Do you have any questions for James or our team? Leave them here.