“I wish I had a really great story about something that sparked my interest in science,” confesses Professor in the Centre for Forensic Science Shari Forbes, “but in all honesty, I was just always interested in science at school.
“Strangely, the subjects I did best at in the HSC were Japanese and economics, but it was science that motivated me.”
Today, Forbes, who grew up on a property “right in the outback in north-west New South Wales”, is best known for an entirely different kind of ‘farm’ the 48-hectare Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER).
“Most of my work is to do with odour profiling, and predominantly as it applies to forensic evidence,” explains Forbes. “What that means is I’m particularly interested in the odour produced by forensic evidence and how detector dogs use that odour to locate the item of interest.
“Because of the AFTER facility, most of my expertise is in human decomposition and working with cadaver dogs. But I also do research with other types, such as drug detection, explosive detection and accelerant dogs.”
Forbes has also forayed into medical applications for odour analysis and how odour profiling might be used to identify species of trafficked animals.
“Everything I do is driven by police questions, by their needs, what they want to see out in the field.
“I think I’m fortunate that forensic science is female dominated. Although I do recognise that when working with the police, it’s still very much a male-dominated career. But we’re starting to see that change.” So too, says Forbes, is academia.
“I think having female role models is important for demonstrating to female students what you can accomplish.
“People think ‘chemistry’, and they think you’re sitting in a dark, dungeon lab. But most chemistry degrees have a really clear application.”
It’s something Forbes, who completed her undergraduate and honours chemistry degrees at UTS (as well as her PhD), knows all-too-well. “I got into my area of research through my honours year. When I looked at the list of honours projects, there was a project about decomposition in cemeteries and I just thought, ‘Oh that sounds so fascinating!’.”
Forbes says excitement is key to success. “We need to do anything we can to get people interested in science, because while there’s an issue with women in STEMM, there’s an issue, generally, with getting people interested in science as well.”
AFTER funded by: Australian Research Council Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme and UTS, University of Wollongong, University of Sydney, Australian National University, University of Canberra, University of New England, Australian Federal Police, NSW Police, Victoria Police, ANSTO, NSW Forensic and Analytical Science Services, Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine
This research funded by: Australian Research Council Future Fellowship
Byline: Fiona Livy