Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR)
Niki Osborne is getting accustomed to her friends calling her “Dexter” – after all, she spends her work days looking at blood spatter.
Niki completed her PhD under the supervision of Dr Rachel Zajac, in the area of forensic psychology. She was particularly interested in how contextual information can influence forensic decision-making. For example, she demonstrated that people are more likely to say that two fingerprints match when they view highly emotional crime scene photographs immediately beforehand. These findings have important implications for the way in which forensic scientists analyse and interpret crime scene evidence.
Throughout her PhD Niki was able to present her findings at conferences in New Zealand and overseas, including New York and Puerto Rico. A conference dinner one evening saw her meeting Dr Michael Taylor, a crime scene investigator and science leader at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) in Christchurch. Dr Taylor is a world-renown expert on bloodstain pattern analysis, and has always been interested in whether bloodstain analysts are vulnerable to contextual influences. “At the time I didn’t realise just how important sharing a pizza with Michael would be.”
Fast forward a year and Niki now works for Dr Taylor. “I submitted my thesis at 11am, and at 1pm ESR called to offer me a position as a Research Associate within their Forensic Business Group. That day still seems so surreal; I still can’t believe how it all worked out.” A month later she packed her bags to leave Dunedin – a place she called home for her eight years of study at Otago – and moved to Christchurch.
Niki says she is learning new skills every day and loves seeing how her results will translate to real crime scene investigations.
“Working for the end-user, I really feel like I am making a difference. The results of my work on this project will directly inform training and policy. When you are doing your PhD it’s not always easy to see how your findings will translate to the real world, but now I get to see first-hand how relevant this research is.”
Niki’s current project will uncover how accurate bloodstain pattern analysts are in their decision-making, and some of the factors that influence this. “The forensic branch of ESR has never used the skills that a psychological scientist can bring, so it’s as exciting for them as it is for me.”
Knowing that research positions are often constrained by funding limitations, Dr Zajac, Dr Taylor, and Niki applied for a University of Otago Research Grant (UORG) for Niki to continue research in this exciting area. With this funding, they are now embarking on a comprehensive investigation of how bloodstain pattern analysts make their decisions.
“If you had asked me five years ago – or even one year ago – where I would be now, I never would have thought I would have my dream job, working for the sole provider of forensic services to the New Zealand Police. These guys are the real CSI: New Zealand. One thing’s for sure, no one gets bored when I tell them my work stories!”