Sunday, February 26, 2012

AAFS 2012 Convention

I just got back from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Atlanta. And I learned A LOT. I didn't actually go there with any sort of preconceived notions, but the scope that forensics covers blew my mind. It started off kind of slow, but I at least got to walk around a lot, which was nice coming directly off the ship, and see the different disciplines of forensic sciences and some of the posters that they had up. Some of the disciplines I had expected (pathologists, biologists who worked exclusively on DNA extraction and genetic fingerprinting, entomologists, ballistics guys) but there were a lot that I hadn't even thought about. Odontology, forensic anthropology, a TON of lawyers and guys with Juris Doctorates, biologists who studied plants and soil composition in different geographic areas to understand taphonomy and root action on remains, questioned documents (I kinda thought most banks had a fraud department, but these guys were experts and worked case by case), forensic veterinarians who determine if animals have been abused, behavioral sciences and psychiatrists, and digital forensics guys were all present at the convention.
Without a doubt, the largest group there were pathologists/biologists. The majority of their work was dedicated towards cause of death and DNA analysis (DNA fragments, mitochondrial DNA, trace DNA, etc), but there was one lecture that stood out in my mind that discussed a case study where a car crash victim displayed retinal hemorrhaging similar to shaken baby syndrome, but only after 24 hours had elapsed. Upon concluding his lecture, a person in the audience stood up and said semi-jokingly that he should formally document his findings and get them published by the end of the night.
Toxicology was pretty interesting to me. I managed to sneak into an open forum that they were having and was immediately seen by one of the organizers who asked me what I was doing there. "Oh, I'm actually in the Navy, but I never studied toxicology so I figured I'd use this opportunity to learn more about it." "Really?! Wow, that is great!" That scenario played out several other times, with people slightly impressed that I was making an effort to understand more about their different fields.
And I can completely understand why they were impressed. I've forgotten a pretty good portion of Biology (after all I haven't used it in 4 years or more), but going through and listening to the lectures helped jog my memory for anatomy, physiology, chemistry, anthropology, and for some reason epidemiology (hey, I was curious as to how prevalent some of these things were!). But being in the room with all these toxicologists (who had a minimum of an MS in Tox) was without a doubt the dumbest I have ever felt. The conversation went something like this:
"You know, I couldn't help but notice in my lab we were having issues with extracted 3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone and its stability. When we went back later it had completely degraded." "Well, you really have to salt it out, because of the nature of these compounds they don't keep very well in the freebase form. So, you'll have to protonate that pyrrolidin type functional group." "Yes, and thank you, I think you bring up a valid point. We've had to do that with some cathinone that was being extracted from khat and sold online by some Israeli company. So, if you've had issues with that, I'd highly recommend converting it into a hydrochloride form."

At that point I was sorely tempted to turn to the person next to me and ask, "I'm sorry, but can you translate that convo into English for me?" Looking back though, what in the world did I expect? These were all highly educated, highly experienced professionals at a convention with other equally educated and experienced professionals. Oh well. I did glean a little bit from the open forum, but the most enlightening wasn't their discussion on how to keep stable compounds, but just the fact that so much of their discussion was on synthetic cannabinoids, MDMA, MDPV, and cathinones because all of these toxicologists' time were being taken up by dealing with kids who'd overdosed on these compounds, or they had so many samples that contained these compounds. And that's what really got me thinking about epidemiology and if someone was actually studying this usage in the US. But there weren't too many epidemiologists there, so I never got that question answered.

After a long day of looking at various case studies, getting tips on resumes/CV's, and listening to different lectures I went to the overpriced and trendy bar that they had in the hotel and started playing with Lara's Kindle. One of the lawyers who worked pro bono for the prosecution on the Casey Anthony case sat down and started discussing the case with me.

Overall, I thought the convention was very interesting and it definitely opened my eyes to the scope of forensic science.
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