Trade talk: Crime buster : Nature : Nature Research

As a PhD student, Kevin Chong studied microorganisms in Antarctica. Now, he’s a forensic scientist at the DNA Profiling Laboratory, part of the Singaporean government’s Health Sciences Authority, where he helps investigators to solve crimes.

What do forensic scientists do?

It’s similar to what is portrayed in the US TV series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Forensics is the application of science in the legal arena, and a forensic scientist in the biological sciences examines crime-scene evidence for biological fluids, such as blood or semen, and tries to obtain a DNA profile from them.

What happens next?

We match the profiles to those of convicted offenders in our database. This does not mean that a given person is the suspect — they could be the victim, or unrelated to the case. Law-enforcement agencies determine involvement.

Did you plan to go into forensic science?

No. When I was an undergraduate student, my research supervisors had PhDs, which influenced me to follow their paths. So I applied to labs that were working on projects that fascinated me, such as on microorganisms that thrive in harsh environments.

Why did you leave academia?

Pushing the boundaries in science often requires serendipity and time — which can be fleeting in a pressure-cooker environment focused on producing paper-worthy results.

How does your lab differ from academia?

The focus is on quality assurance. In academia, there are quality controls in every experiment. But we go beyond that here. Our lab’s staff members have to be proficiency-tested annually to ensure that we can perform tests to produce a reliable result. Analysts have to review all forensic work and tests. And you can’t use expired chemicals. That was a shock — in my PhD lab, no one cared about expiry dates.

What have you learnt in this job?

Science and those practising it should be neutral. We want the evidence to speak for itself.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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