Research by a trio of Griffith University Forensic Science students is helping the Australian Army preserve, identify and repatriate the remains of soldiers from historic battlefields and modern-day combat zones.
Jasmine Connell, 21, Andrew Ghaiyed, 26, and Kyle James, 22, received grants from the Australian Army to conduct forensic science research that will assist the Unrecovered War Casualties Unit – Army (UWC-A) and the Forensic Response Team.
All three students received First Class Honours and a special citation from the Australian Defence Force.
The talented trio have also won PhD scholarships from the Australian Government to help them continue their research at Griffith University.
Team work produces results
Kyle said the three had supported each other throughout an “intense year”.
“We had been mates throughout our undergrad course, and we became a small team during our Honours year,” he said.
“We kept pushing each other on and helping each other out.
“It was an intense year, so it was good to have that support.”
Research makes a real difference
Jasmine’s research will help preserve the remains of soldiers in the intense heat of combat zones in the Middle East, where temperatures can reach 50 degrees.
Her research looked at using chemical transport options for DNA samples, removing the need for refrigeration. This will help the ADF’s Forensic Response Team develop rapid response mobile mortuaries in combat conditions.
“I put in a lot of late nights in the lab, but the idea that my research could be put into action by the ADF helped me push through,” she said.
“I loved knowing that my research could help the ADF to accurately identify deceased soldiers and return them to their families.
“It feels great knowing that you are making a real difference.”
Unlocking Kokoda’s secrets
Kyle and Andrew’s research is helping to unlock the secrets of the Kokoda Track – identifying the ancestry of Australian servicemen from WWII whose remains are still unaccounted for.
There are still more than 2,000 Australian Servicemen who remain unaccounted for in Papua New Guinea from World War Two.
In addition to these cases, the UWC-A is working to identify those buried as ‘Unidentified Soldiers’.
Andrew’s research looked at new ways of using DNA to determine the ancestry of remains of WWII soldiers recovered on the Kokoda Track.
“The specialised DNA matching techniques used in modern forensic work aren’t much use because the remains are so degraded,” he said.
“We are looking to assign ancestry, rather than identity.”
Lightning advances in technology
This particular field of forensic science is moving at lightning speed, with new developments every week.
“The technology is moving so fast – we are now looking at gathering information about skin colour, height and eye colour from DNA and recreating a picture of what the person looked like,” he said.
“Just last year, we found out there was a genetic mutation specific to people of Japanese ancestry, which has big implications for our project.
“It’s crazy how fast the field is advancing.”
Responsibility to honour the fallen
Kyle’s Honours project involved developing statistical methods to infer the ancestry of unidentified military remains.
“The new work that is being done to track down the ancestry of soldiers killed in WWII needs a robust statistical method to interpret the information correctly.”
“My work will allow accurate reporting of DNA results to Army investigators.”
The Gold Coast student said identifying the remains correctly was a big responsibility.
“You don’t want to make any mistakes,” he said.
“It would be the highest disrespect to bury an Aussie soldier in a Japanese war grave.
“This is a way of honouring the soldiers and the sacrifices they made.
“We are trying to get as many identified and repatriated as possible, so they can be given a proper military funeral and burial.
“There are still the remains of thousands of soldiers left behind in PNG, so it is a big task, but very fulfilling work.”
Kyle was lucky enough to be supervised by Adjunct Associate Professor Janet Chaseling – a member of Griffith University’s original faculty, and one of the world’s leading forensic statisticians.
“It was fantastic working with someone with Janet’s level of experience – she was such an amazing mentor,” he said.
“The quality of our supervisors was astounding.”
The other students were supervised by Senior Lecturer in Forensic Science, Kirsty Wright, who has strong links to the ADF.
Ms Wright is a Flight Lieutenant with the Royal Australian Air Force, and is part of a forensic fly-away team which is called in whenever there is a major incident involving serving ADF personnel.
Meet the ‘dream team’
She said Jasmine, Andrew and Kyle had been a “dream team”.
“This has been a special group of students – it’s rare that they all performed so well and all received PhD scholarships,” she said.
“They were extremely enthusiastic about working on real-life problems, and the outcomes of their research were greatly appreciated by the ADF.”
A bright future ahead
So what lies ahead for these students?
Andrew is keen to pursue a career in forensic DNA after completing his PhD.
“I would eventually like to work on missing persons cases, applying the things I’ve learned in my undergraduate and research at a global level,” he said.
“It’s a big task, but someone’s got to give it a go.”
Kyle is looking forward to fitting together the next pieces of the puzzle.
“I’m excited to keep going with this research and expand on what we’ve learned so far,” he said.
“We’re really at the forefront of this field – it’s amazing to be a part of it”.
Jasmine says she plans to accept whatever opportunities come her way.
The forensic science student originally decided to enrol in a Bachelor of Forensic Science as a stepping stone to a career in medicine, but forensics has proved to be her passion.
“It wasn’t until I was undertaking the degree that I realised that this was where I was meant to be,” she said.
“Life isn’t always a straight line,” she said.
“Sometimes it’s the detours that teach you the most and offer you the biggest growth.
“My career goal is to say yes. Yes to experience. Yes to opportunities.
“Each opportunity opens new doors and the beauty of taking chances is that anything can happen.”