Dr Paola A. Magni: a Forensic Biologist visting London for FameLab International
Dr Paola A. Magni is a forensic biologist who investigates crimes, writes scripts for the Italian version of CSI, is a scuba instructor, and is a researcher and senior lecturer at Perth's Murdoch University. She also represented Australia at FameLab International, a major science communication competition held in Cheltham. I caught up with Paola to find out more about this extraordinary woman.
You are a Forensic Biologist. You must work in some challenging situations. What took you down this route?
Since I was a child I had a passion for the nature surrounding me. I couldn’t help looking and touching creatures around me, whether they were big, small, nice or nasty looking! I asked for a microscope from Santa Claus when I was five, so it was an understandable path for me to study natural sciences at university. Nobody was surprised by my choice!
During my five years of study (back in the days when it was a combination of bachelor + honours + master in five years, take or leave it) I learned a lot. But when the time of the specialisation arrived I was pretty confused. Nothing that I was studying was able to satisfy my goal to “use natural sciences for a meaningful application”. But ... then something happened. London
I discovered a branch of the natural sciences (forensic entomology) that was focused on the use of little creatures (insects and crustaceans) to help the process of criminal investigations. I flew to London, visited the Natural History Museum and I learned more. I realised that forensics was the path I wanted to pursue! I did a lot more research and, at the same time, I worked as an expert witness in real cases in several countries.
I moved to Australia to complete the research for my PhD, accepted a post-doc position and then a lecturer position at the University. I now teach and conduct research in forensic science, especially biology, but also in other innovative fields that explore how virtual reality and nanotechnology may be applied to forensic investigation.
I imagine that curiosity is a key quality for your role. What else is important?
Dedication, precision and the ability to communicate with people of different backgrounds who play roles in the process of the investigation, such as law enforcement officers and lawyers and so on.
Another key factor is being able to think out of the box and find an alternative and creative solution, cross-pollinating your discipline with others.
Within hours of your arrival in the UK, a human skull washed up on the Thames which piqued your interest. Does this type of forensic situation excite you?
Yes! That was amazing and I contacted the person who found it. These type of mysterious cases, in which a full forensic team can be involved, are extremely exciting.
I sent the picture to an anthropologist and I spoke with an oceanographer/water physics expert about it. I also talked with a geologist and an archaeologist.
In theory, we can establish lots of information about this skull: if belongs to a male or female, age at death, ethnicity, cause of death, place of death, events after death, where it comes from, how long was it sitting were it was found. A facial reconstruction could be possible!
You represented Australia at FameLab International. I can’t help but notice that recent Australian FameLab winners are women. How does the competition open doors for women in STEM?
Famelab is about science communication considering the 3Cs: content, charisma and clarity.
It doesn’t matter if you are a boy or a girl. Science is science, and it’s about the single individual being able to share science following this formula.
After a few years of experience in science and academia, I feel like girls in science are great, but sometimes it is hard to get people to listen to them.
FameLab is also about find creative ways to presentation information, and a girls are great at that!
Don’t get me wrong, guys are good as well - in fact at the WA semi-finals I bet a fellow presenter, a guy, was going to win. But I think FameLab can be a great opportunity for girls to share their science using their innate talents!
Your Twitter account describes you as “forensic entomologist, terrestrial & aquatic crime scene expert, Italian CSI scriptwriter, SmartInsects App developer, scuba diving instructor. And I can cook :)” WOW! How would the most important people in your life describe you if they were writing your twitter blog?
Haha! Maybe I have to change the description! It’s a bit confronting!
People I love - and that love me for who I am in or out of science - would say that I am a little bossy, a micromanager, very caring, funny but I can also get fired up (angry I mean) pretty quick when someone presses my buttons.
Tell us about FameLab Australia. What made you apply? What have you discovered about yourself and your work through the competition?
I applied because this was the last year I could, and I challenged myself. FameLab is for early career researchers and next year I will be considered a middle career researcher.
The challenge is about communicating my science and my passion in English, a language that is not my first language. English is the language I use daily, but talking to people and talking to an audience on a stage is a completely different story.
The beauty of FameLab is that the competition on the stage is just the cherry on the cake. There is also the great experience of science communication masterclasses provided by the organizers, the British Council and in Australia by the Foundation of the WA Museum. These have been precious experiences, and I will use every single tip they gave me for the rest of my career.
I enjoyed watching the goodwill and camaraderie between Australian FameLab competitors. Does the same closeness exist at the international level? Do you tap into a strong and supportive international network for women in STEM?
I found a great group of people that I am lucky I can now call friends. Again, I guess this is because the FameLab competition itself is just the cherry on the cake. We enjoyed the whole FameLab experience and we learned a lot from each other's personality and science.
It’s not like that all the time, but over the last few years, I have learnt that if people are not positive and proactive they are not worth my time.
Can you share with share some your career highlights with us?
I am the first forensic entomologist that in Italy has been able to investigate cases from the crime scene to the court!
I worked for several years as a scriptwriter for the Italian version of CSI where a character portrays myself and my science.
I had experience in the America anthropology research facilities (body farms)
I am a scuba diving instructor, and after some of the experiences I had underwater and in aquatic cases I decided to specialise in aquatic forensics.
In Australia I am a senior lecturer in forensic science and a researcher. I received funds from the university and the Australian government for innovative research and cross-cultural teaching in the Indo-Pacific area and USA.
What’s next for you?
Singapore! Along with five of my students, I run an interactive activity of science, forensic science and natural sciences at the natural history museum of Singapore.
Following that, I will be in Malaysia with 10 more students for a cross-cultural masterclass crime-scene simulation, together with Malaysian forensic students.