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Interview with Arian van Asten and Maurice Aalders

Think of forensic science and the first image that comes to mind is probably the hit series Crime Scene Investigation. Every week CSI, as it is more commonly known, gives an intimate look into the work of a group of forensic investigators who perform minute examination on grisly crime scenes with the aim of solving complex criminal cases.

Credits: Nederlands Forensisch Instituut

While perhaps not always so glamorous, the actual field of forensic science is just as compelling. In the Netherlands, just as elsewhere, forensics is a constantly developing field that encompasses research from a variety of disciplines and plays a vital part in the criminal justice system. It is also a field in which forensic practice and scientific research are intimately linked. In 2013, the University of Amsterdam took an important step in strengthening this link by partnering in the creation of the Co van Ledden Hulsebosch Center (CLHC). Named after Dutch forensic pioneer Christiaan Jacobus (Co) van Ledden Hulsebosch, the CLHC is a joint endeavour between the UvA’s Faculty of Science (FNWI), the Academic Medical Center (AMC-UvA) and the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI). The Center merges scientific excellence and forensic expertise, acts as a nexus for forensic research within the Netherlands and supports UvA’s Forensic Science Master programme.

In this month’s ‘UvA in the Spotlight’ we speak to CLHC directors Arian van Asten, professor in Forensic Analytical Chemistry, and Maurice Aalders, professor in Forensic Biophysics. 

Prof Arian van Asten, professor Forensic Analytical Chemistry
Arian van Asten (photo: Jeroen Oerlemans)

How did the CLHC come about?

Van Asten: Despite the solid international reputation of the NFI, the Netherlands did not have an established tradition in the field of forensic science research. The CLHC was created as a way to fill this gap and strengthen our forensic research capacity across a wide range of disciplines. We do this by reaching out to UvA institutes with a knowledge base that is potentially of interest to the field of forensic science. A lot of research conducted at the UvA has a clear application within forensic science. By giving a face to such research, the Center is able to identify and attract research talent from across the spectrum. At the moment we have realised over 30 PhD projects and postdoc projects within the CLHC network.

Aalders: The matrix model and approach of the CLHC is truly unique. The Center is small, but has access to a broad range of scientific disciplines. It actively promotes forensic science in the Netherlands by building and maintaining a national and international network, bringing together PhD researchers and initiating forensic research outside the traditional criminal justice system. By networking with institutes and partners locally and internationally, we can identify possible areas of collaboration and initiate joint research projects. In light of the changing funding landscape and the shift from national to international funding, such research partnerships are more important than ever. 

How important has the partnership between the NFI, Faculty of Science and AMC been for the success of the CLHC?

Aalders: Extremely. The partnership was originally arranged for a period of two years and was recently continued after a very positive evaluation. The Center allows the three partners to fully utilise each other’s knowledge and expertise. This link between the scientific domain and the field of forensics has proven to be very fruitful: we currently have more than 30 PhD students involved in forensic projects and have established special chairs in areas such as Forensic Statistics, Forensic Biology, Forensic Chemistry, Forensic Radiology, Forensic Medicine, Forensic Biophysics and Digital Forensics.

Van Asten: The great thing about this partnership is that it stimulates new insights and generates research with an added value. The research is driven by questions from the field itself. For example, one of our research projects came about as a result of a criminal case in which we were asked whether it was possible to determine from evidence on a suspect’s clothing if the person was physically present at an explosion crime scene. This was the first time we had been posed with such a question. Because we were supervising a PhD project at the time on the chemical profiling of explosives, we were able to study the residual compounds left behind by explosives. Once we identified and analysed these compounds, we then looked at whether they were characteristic of an explosion or could also be formed through other processes. Our research eventually revealed that it was indeed characteristic of a post-explosion situation. Our findings were eventually published and used as evidence in a criminal case.

Besides research, the Center is also involved in the Master’s programme in Forensic Science. Can you tell us more?

Aalders: The Centre makes a significant contribution to education and communication. It provides topics for literature theses and research projects within the programme and is involved in organising the successful lecture series ‘Frontiers of Forensic Science’, which brings together students, established researchers and forensic experts. Both Arian and I also lecture within the programme.

Van Asten: We’re proud to be involved in the programme. The curriculum is of a high quality and is well respected both at home and abroad. Every year the programme attracts a mixed group of students with a substantial international background. Besides arming students with a sound knowledge of forensics, the Master’s allows students to take part in running research projects and offers good employment prospects in various fields.

Prof Maurice Aalders, professor Forensic Biophysics
Maurice Aalders (photo: Jeroen Oerlemans)

How good is the quality of forensic science in the Netherlands?

Aalders: I would say excellent. We recently attended an international forensic conference where the latest research from many countries was presented. Our contribution was substantial and of high quality, primarily because of the matrix approach within CLHC and the way we have established a platform for interdisciplinary collaboration.

Van Asten: Yes, our focus on collaboration and the model we use have proven be a success. I would venture to say the Netherlands is becoming a leading country in forensics science in line with the international status of the NFI. The important thing to remember, and which the CHLC addresses, is that forensic science should always be connected to other scientific disciplines. Take epigenetic research, for example. Such research is mainly enabled from a medical framework, but is also extremely important for forensics. The CLHC was created exactly with this in mind: identifying and bringing together researchers who are doing work that might be of interest to the field of forensics and finding the funding to initiate a collaboration. 

What are the biggest future developments within forensics?

Van Asten: The ongoing growth of digital forensic science will have marked implications for the field. Some even think it will fundamentally change the way forensic institutes operate. To be clear: digital forensics refers to the use of digital sources to investigate and solve crimes. It is becoming increasingly difficult to commit a crime without leaving some kind of digital trace. For example, think of mobile phones, which leave behind important information about someone's movement and doings, even without the person being aware. Major technological developments are taking place outside the forensic domain. Here at the Faculty of Science, for instance, researchers at the informatics institute are conducting research into such things as big data, network systems and other aspects of computational systems. Their work could prove to be important to forensics. Once again, the key is to pinpoint such research and link it to the forensic field. Hence is makes perfect sense that the institute has a special chair in forensic data science.

What are your plans for the coming years?

Aalders: We want to expand and consolidate our network, locally and internationally. These last two years the team at CLHC has laid the groundwork for a strong and durable institute, one that has already started to make a name for itself. Going forward our chief aims will be to retain and, hopefully, increase the number of research projects within the Center, facilitate more student exchanges and lastly expand the work placement opportunities for our students and researchers.

Read more about the CLHC