The Indonesian Police now have a world-class forensic tool to help them narrow down the identity of suspects in crime for prosecution, thanks to Cowra’s own 26-year-old Dr Samantha Venables (nee Orford).
Dr Venables created a database that can accurately determine the probability of DNA belonging to a particular person as part of her PhD project, customised to the Indonesian population. The former Cowra High student graduated from university last month and says that she’s essentially been at school in one form or another since she started kindergarten at Mulyan Public School in 1992.
“I was always interested in the law and quite good at science and decided at 15 that forensics was a field that I would like to pursue as a way of combining those two interests,” Dr Venables says.
“I do have to admit that I did love CSI at the time, however, I stopped watching CSI when I started university because I realised just how unrealistic it is!”
Dr Venables describes how she created the database which is now being used by police in Indonesia.
“Forensic DNA analysis looks at parts of a person’s DNA called short tandem repeat (STR) markers, where a short segment of DNA is repeated a number of times e.g. TCAG TCAG TCAG TCAG TCAG,” Dr Venables explains.
“These markers are useful for identifying individuals in a forensic sense as all people have these markers but the number of repeats that are present can be highly variable between individuals.
“This variation gives rise to different ‘alleles’ (variants). Forensic biologists can then compare the DNA profile, or the combination of alleles, obtained from a crime scene stain to DNA profiles obtained from known individuals to determine if they match or not.”
Once a match is found, Dr Venables says that allele frequency data (how common or rare an allele is in a certain population e.g. Caucasian, Aboriginal Australian, Asian etc) is used to determine the strength of the evidence, which directly relates to the probability that the match that has been observed might happen by chance if another individual was chosen at random from the population.
“One major issue in Indonesia was that no one had looked at how geography, language and culture differences across the archipelago might have been affecting the allele frequencies of the
forensic STR markers,” Dr Venables said.
“Indonesia has a population of over 240 million people distributed over 17,000 islands (6000 are inhabited) of various sizes with numerous geographic features.
“The people belong to over 300 distinct traditional groups and speak a total of 719 languages; over 10 per cent of all the languages in the world. These factors are known to influence allele frequency and as a result we hypothesised that Indonesia would not be able to be treated as a single genetic population for the purposes of calculating DNA match statistics.
“I analysed forensic identity (STR) markers and ancestry markers in over 1800 individuals from 36 subpopulations across the Indonesian archipelago and identified the presence of genetic population boundaries within Indonesia. After identifying the locations of these boundaries, I developed six population-specific allele frequency databases that can be used for forensic case work purposes.”
Dr Venables worked on the project for around four years and says that she found the idea that her research would be immediately relevant to forensic biologists in both Australia and in Indonesia “exciting”.
She says she was fortunate enough to travel to Jakarta earlier in the year trip to present her results to the Indonesian National Police and the Eijkman Institute for Medical Research. The Eijkman Institute for Medical Research contributed the samples that Dr Venables analysed for her project and she says that without the support of Professor Herawati Sudoyo, her project would not have been possible.
For now, Dr Venables is working at the University of Canberra in a number of roles and trying to publish the results of her research in academic publications. She is also anxiously awaiting the results of her application for research funding in December. If she is successful, she will be able to undertake a three-year research project as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Canberra.
Dr Venables credits her success to the love and support of her family.
“I am certainly indebted to my family and I honestly think that without their support I never would have made it this far!” Dr Venables says.
“Mum, Dad, Nan and Pop did everything they could to make the transition to university as easy for me as possible, including buying me a car and a laptop. Since then, they have been with me every step of the way, encouraging me to accomplish my lofty goals and supporting me in every way possible.”
She speaks lovingly about the support of her husband Doug as well.
“There was an eight week period where I essentially lived in the laboratory and I couldn’t have asked for a more understanding husband than Doug. He was a great motivator and always said just the right thing. His well-timed trips to the takeaway for hot chips and gravy sustained me during my thesis writing,” Dr Venables says.