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Hilary Hamnett pipetting in the forensics lab
Dr Hilary Hamnett MRSC


Hilary moved half way around the world to pursue a career in forensics in New Zealand.

Early life and chemistry

Thanks in no small part to her chemistry professor father, Hilary described chemistry as “being everywhere” when she was growing up. Her interest in forensics, however, was kindled at school.

“The teacher dragged me and my identical twin to the front of the class and asked everyone if they thought we would have the same fingerprints. I understood from an early age that we shared the same genes so I was convinced our fingerprints would match – they didn’t, and that got me thinking about forensics. Even 20 years later, being an identical twin is still relevant when I have to give DNA samples to go on police elimination databases.”

Hilary went on to study chemistry at Oxford University and then completed a Master's degree in forensic science at the University of Strathclyde. This was where she got her first real taste for forensics, working on a project with the Forensic Science Service (FFS) on fibres and trace evidence.

“I found out [at Strathclyde] that chemistry opens up the most exciting areas of forensics – drugs, fires, explosives and toxicology.”

Toxicology

Photograph of Hilary Hamnett

When she was unable to find a long-term opportunity with the FSS that would allow her to use the chemistry she had learnt, she worked as a journals editor at the Royal Society of Chemistry. This provided a way to keep in touch with science and enabled her to hone her keen eye for detail, something that would come in useful again in her forensics career. And indeed, it wasn’t long before the FSS offered her a role in something suitably chemistry-related – toxicology. “Toxicology is the study of drugs and poisons and their effect on the human body, and I found it fascinating, particularly as there weren’t simple answers to many of the questions.”

“My undergraduate chemistry still comes in useful today, not only in the lab but also when interpreting spectra and recognising by-products from the synthesis of illegal drugs. It also takes a chemist to explain many of the complex scientific concepts found in toxicology to everyone in the courtroom.”

Unfortunately, this didn’t last. Not long after she started, the FSS closed. Unperturbed, she decided to pursue her career abroad. “It’s hard to describe to people what it’s like doing your dream job, but once you’ve done it, you really don’t want to go back to something else. I felt like I was making a difference and I was achieving something. And I really didn’t want to give up that feeling.”

New Zealand

After applying for jobs in Canada and Australia, she found a job and a home in New Zealand. Now, with more job security, she is looking to the future. “I’m aiming for that five years of experience and then it becomes much easier to have a job where you want, rather than where you have to go.”

It has also given her opportunities to pass on her passion by engaging in outreach activities to teach young people about the dangers of drink and drugs, as well as about career opportunities within forensics, for which she has received funding from the Royal Society of Chemistry.

When asked if she misses the UK, she says her passion for what she does, the lack of opportunities back home, and the excitement of exploring a new country keep her happy for now.

“You have to make an effort to do it, make the most of a new home, otherwise you’re just watching TV in another country.”

Hilary on…

Giving evidence in court:

“It’s always scary; it doesn’t get any easier. But I was well prepared for it because of the Oxford tutorial system. I’m used to the idea that waffling on and making something up just doesn’t cut it. In forensics, we used to have this idea that it doesn’t matter if you say something stupid on the stand because today’s news is going to be wrapped around tomorrow’s fish and chips. But now, it’s all over the internet, so you have to be so careful about what you say. It’s pretty nerve-wracking, but not much worse than my PhD viva.”

Biggest toxicology challenge in New Zealand:

“Synthetic cannabinoid drugs (sold as ‘Spice’, ‘Kronic’ and ‘K2’) are causing a major problem for us at the moment. No sooner do we work out the structure of one, and how to detect it and have the government legislate against it, another one appears on the market and we are back to square one. The levels in blood are absolutely minute and we have no idea how long they persist in the body after use, so even if we get a positive result, it is impossible to interpret. The first step in solving this problem will be to prevent the sale of these drugs (currently they are being sold openly in corner shops) and the New Zealand government is attempting to do that at the moment with the Psychoactive Substances Act 2013.”

Getting into forensics

“A first degree in a pure science is essential for budding forensic scientists. Without the fundamentals, scientists have no hope of explaining complex concepts to the non-scientists in the courtroom. Study chemistry if you’re interested in toxicology, fires, explosives or illegal drugs, but those keen on DNA testing should consider a degree in biology. The forensic job market is extremely competitive and work experience is thin on the ground, so the best way in is through an MSc in forensic science. Strathclyde and King’s offer courses with placements in forensic laboratories, and these provide invaluable foot-in-the-door experience.”

Words by Yuandi Li
Images courtesy of Hilary Hamnett
Published March 2014

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