Life as a forensic scientist

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FLIGHT LIEUTENANT KIRSTY WRIGHT’S AMAZING STORY OF MEDICINE AND HUMANITY

As a teenager, Kirsty Wright hated subjects like maths and science and had no aspirations of going to university, working at Hungry Jacks, but her passion for health and fitness inspired her to take on a gym instructor course, which provided a “life changing” pathway to forensic science.

Now an Air Force officer and forensic scientist, Flight Lieutenant Wright has realised her ambition of becoming world class in her chosen field.

While studying to become a gym instructor in the 1990s, Kirsty’s love with all things biology and physiology led her to university and to a Bachelor of Biomedical Science (Honours).
During her degree course, Kirsty attended a lecture on forensic science that she describes as “life changing”.

“The lecture was about forensic science, the early forensic science before you ever saw it on TV and I thought: “how interesting would it be to identify bodies and help solve crime using DNA” and I decided that’s what I want to do,” she said.

“From then on, I was like a dog with a bone – so fixated and so focused on becoming a forensic scientist that I just locked myself away on weekends and read textbooks from cover to cover.”
Kirsty’s degree led her to a career with the Queensland Health Forensic Biology Lab where she worked on major crime cases such as assault, sexual assault and homicide.

This was in the early 2000s, when DNA technology was still evolving and forensic scientists were only just discovering how to get DNA from bones – and it was this emerging technology that interested Kirsty the most. She worked on aircraft and helicopter crashes before entering the confronting world of anti-terrorist activities with the Australian Federal Police, which involved identifying bodies from major terrorist and humanitarian crises including the Bali Bombings, 9/11 Terror Attacks – and the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people.

During these devastating humanitarian crises, Kirsty says she was confronted with images she hopes most people will never have to see.

“When you’re being trained to be a forensic scientist, you learn about science – how do you get a DNA profile, etcetera, but in the field, you’re confronted with really horrific things, things that other people can’t even imagine.”

“You have to try and flick a switch because if you let your emotions get to you, it may affect how well you do your job – and if I don’t do my job well a crime may go unpunished, or unidentified remains may never be returned to their family.”

FLTLT Wright said working in Thailand for five months after the Boxing Day Tsunami was one of her biggest challenges, both professionally and personally.

“We had thousands of people to identify, that had been killed in Thailand, and 500 of those were children. The scale of that operation was something we couldn’t have even imagined, and it was something we hadn’t even trained for. Obviously, trying to identify children was very, very hard, all you wanted to do was give the children back to their families.”

Kirsty transitioned to the military in 2011 after asking if they needed someone with her expertise to adapt newfound DNA technology for military needs. They did, and so she began her tri-Service career working on modern conflicts and humanitarian crises, as well as identifying missing soldiers from World War I, II and the Korean War.

The forensic doctor said there is no typical day for her in the military. “Sometimes, I’ve got to juggle a range of responsibilities from assisting the police with some of their work to assisting the Unrecovered War Casualties Army with World War 1 and World War 2 cases.

“I’m also currently assisting the Weapons Technical Intelligence Project, so I work quite closely with leading military and police experts. At the same time I have a group of research students, and they’re fascinated by all this work. It’s a great opportunity to get them involved in developing new methods that the police and military can use.”

Her advice for teenagers or adults wanting to pursue a career in science is simple: “ if you really want it, make it happen. “If you see something that really interests you and that you’re really passionate about – pursue it.

“If you really enjoy public service, if you really enjoy helping people and making contributions to society and above all, problem solving, then I definitely recommend a career in science or even forensics.”