Inside forensics

Shari Forbes and Xanthe Spindler. Photo by: Shane Lo

Shari Forbes and Xanthe Spindler. Photo by: Shane Lo

In summary: 
  • UTS Science in Focus: Inside the forensics world is a public lecture, co-presented by the Sydney Science Festival, held on Tuesday August 16
  • Headlining the event are UTS’s own forensic experts Shari Forbes (who researches the chemical processes that occur in soft tissue decomposition) and Xanthe Spindler (an expert in fingerprint science) 

Do you love a good crime show? Were you guilty of binge watching the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer? Like many crime show fans, you’ve probably pictured yourself as a forensics investigator. But how exactly do forensic scientists determine things like time since death? And how are police dogs able to quickly locate bodies?

Head along to UTS Science in Focus: Inside the forensics world, to find out all these answers, and more. The public lecture, co-presented by the Sydney Science Festival, will be held during National Science Week, on August 16.

Headlining the event are UTS’s own Shari Forbes and Xanthe Spindler. Forbes, an expert in decomposition, has been at the forefront of research investigating the chemical processes that occur in soft tissue decomposition. Her research aims to identify the chemical profile of decomposition odour to enhance the capabilities of cadaver-detection dogs.

She’s doing this by studying the decomposition of human corpses at the recently opened Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) - the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere.

“Even though forensic taphonomy has been studied for more than 30 years now, there is still much that we have to learn about the process of decomposition,” says Forbes.

“Forensic investigation is multi-disciplinary - it involves work by biologists, chemists, physicists and mathematicians. Each expertise comprises only one part of the puzzle and demonstrates the importance of working collaboratively.”

While it might sound confronting to some, AFTER is vital for the success of human death investigations here and overseas, including in neighbouring countries where Australia sends emergency response teams in times of disaster.

Forbes hopes those attending the UTS Science in Focus event “gain a greater awareness of the value of AFTER and the invaluable contribution that our donors make to our research.”

Spindler, meanwhile, will focus her part of the lecture on fingerprint science. Though the aim of fingerprint science is simple – to find and enhance the fingerprint without destroying the pattern – the process isn’t quite so straightforward.

“When you follow a fingerprint from deposition at the scene to detection and identification, you discover that the discipline touches just about every aspect of science,” says Spindler.

“The secretions on our skin and the fingerprint patterns are a product of biology. The physics and chemistry of the touched surface affect how they are transferred and preserved. We detect them using chemistry, and the identification process would be a lot more cumbersome if it wasn’t for mathematics and computer science.

“If we understand the fundamental processes involved in fingerprint transfer, ageing and detection, we can design better detection techniques and avoid destroying other traces like DNA or chemical residues.”

And by sharing her knowledge with the public, Spindler hopes, “guests at the event will gain a new perspective on those invisible traces – those amazing sweaty or greasy marks we leave behind on everything we touch.” 

For more information and to register your attendance, visit

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