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Forensic Science
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Steffan Jonkers, Forensic chemometrician/ software developer at NFI

I am Steffan Jonkers, have a background in chemistry and graduated from the MSc Forensic Science in July 2016 with a chemometrics research project on fire debris data. During the master I was a member of the Programme Committee. I am working at the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI), mainly on the NFiDENT project, which aims to massively reduce the turnaround time for drug measurements.

Reason to choose the master
The master’s programme Forensic Science was kind of like my second chance – I started with a chemistry master the year before, but did not like it, and wanted to try something else. I had a liberal arts & sciences background, with a major in chemistry, but also a lot of interdisciplinary work. That seemed to fit with the Forensic Science master, in which there is a lot of interdisciplinary work, but room for specialisation as well.

Experience during the master
Given my background, I knew that my forensic science research project would have to deal with chemistry, but I did not want it to contain any lab work. A guest lecture on the statistical analysis of drug tablet properties in the first year made me realise that it was the field of chemometrics (chemical data analytics) that I should try to find a project in.  I got in touch with the lecturer, and I kept the contact “warm” until it was time to plan an actual project.

It was a project on detecting the presence of ignitable liquid residues in fire debris samples, in an automated fashion. I had access to a dataset of chemical GCxGC-MS data of fire debris samples with known presence of various types of ignitable liquids, and a laptop. It was on that laptop that I learned how to write computer code (in MATlab), and on which I applied machine learning algorithms to address the topic of my project.

Current job
My first job application was at the NFI, for a data scientist position, but I got rejected. When asked what I could do to improve my chances, I was told that knowledge on certain machine learning techniques and database languages would be useful. So I spent a few months doing online courses on these things. With success: I got myself to the final round of several different data scientist applications, all within our criminal justice system. After my third NFI job application, I was finally hired as a hybrid chemometrician/software developer. I guess perseverance counts as well! I am mainly working on the NFiDENT project, which aims to massively reduce the turnaround time for drug measurements. My role in this project is to automate the data analysis step that is currently being performed by human analysts, and my work focuses both on the statistical modeling of chemical data and on developing software.  

Advice for current students

Compared to my previous studies, there was a lot of group work and attention to the professionalisation aspect of a master’s programme. And there were plenty of possibilities for extracurricular activities: I was able to join the master’s programme committee, joined the excursion committee, and co-founded study association Verum. All three of these activities provided me with a lot of useful experience and nice memories, and I would advise students to take an active role in such activities. The practical experience that you gain is a nice complement to the otherwise mostly theoretical developments that you go through in university. It can be fun and will be good for your CV. Another tip would be to learn (the basics of) computer coding!