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Starting 1 September prof. Arian van Asten is appointed for a 5 year term as the new education director for the Master’s programme in Forensic Science (MFS) coordinated by the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies. As of the same date Arian will leave the NFI after working for the renowned forensic institute for 12 years to join the ranks of the University of Amsterdam. In addition to his new role as the MFS education director he is also appointed as a full professor on a new chair in Forensic Analytical Chemistry and On-Scene Chemical Analysis within the van ‘t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences.

Together with prof. Maurice Aalders he will continue to lead the Co van Ledden Hulsebosch Center. This Amsterdam centre for forensic science and medicine was established in 2013 and includes in addition to the founding partners FNWI, AMC and NFI currently  also VU Science, Delft University and Amsterdam University of Applied Science (HvA) as collaborators. The CLHC aims to build forensic science in Amsterdam and the Netherlands and to raise international awareness and connection of Dutch efforts in forensic science and education.

We have asked Arian to introduce himself and his vision on forensic science and education through 5 essential questions :

What are your own research interests in forensic science?

After working for over a decade in the chemical industry, I started as department head and member of the management team at the NFI in 2006. However,  from the start I was fascinated by forensic science and using scientific methods and principles to extract useful and objective information from forensic traces and physical evidence. With NFI experts I have worked on  and defined R&D programmes to advance forensic case work.  I have a background in analytical chemistry and in 2012 I was appointed on a special chair on forensic analytical chemistry in the group of prof Peter Schoenmakers within HIMS. Since then I have been involved in several forensic chemistry areas including the chemical profiling of explosives, the use of comprehensive chromatography to detect ignitable liquids in fire debris, chemical imaging of forensic traces, rapid chemical identification of explosives and drugs of abuse at the crime scene and the forensic toxicological trace analysis of drugs, medicines and metabolites in body fluids and alternative matrices such as human hair. But I have a very broad interest and I am always keen to collaborate with scientists and experts outside my field, this has led to a number of interesting and unexpected projects. I have also published papers on forensic science in general and my views on innovation challenges and opportunities in the forensic field. In my new chair I will also focus on DYI chemical analysis outside the laboratory using rapid, portable, easy-to-use equipment. Being able to create reliable chemical information on the spot is highly beneficial for informed decision making, not only at the crime scene but also in many other fields.      

What attracts you to the MFS and why do you want to be involved in the programme?

The programme is unique in the Netherlands and IIS has consistently improved the curriculum after the start in 2005. The fact that the MFS attracts a lot of international students even from outside Europe is indicative of the high quality of the programme. Furthermore, the Netherlands Forensic Institute is strongly involved in the programme and several NFI, police and judicial experts teach in the curriculum providing a strong link to forensic practice. With my experience and network both in the criminal justice system and the scientific community, I think I can really contribute to further improving the MFS. Ideally the MFS programme is seen as an essential factor to maintain forensic expertise in the Dutch criminal justice system by educating the next generation of talented forensic scientists, experts and advisors.      

How interdisciplinary is the MFS and what how important is an interdisciplinary approach?

Forensic science is on the one hand all about detailed scientific expertise in a specific narrow field and on the other hand all about interdisciplinary ways of working. This is nicely formulated in the MFS tagline “Seeing the big picture, having a sharp eye for detail”. The interdisciplinary aspects in a curriculum on forensic science provide great opportunities but also pose challenges. How do you provide sufficient scientific depth when students have various BSc backgrounds and when you want to provide them with a comprehensive view on the role of forensic science in criminal investigations? For some time now I think that IIS has found the solution to this puzzle! The 2-year curriculum is well balanced and the key to scientific depth is to keep the students closely connected to their BSc discipline through electives and during the literature thesis and final research project. We only need to bring more digital forensics in the programme, this forensic expertise area has grown exponentially over the last years as a result of a more and more digital society.       

What is the added value of the MFS for the Dutch criminal justice system?

Maybe recognition has been a bit lagging but in my opinion the MFS is very valuable for the Dutch criminal justice system. We need to be a bit less modest and communicate this added value more strongly! IIS has been monitoring the career developments of the MFS alumni and the number of students that now successfully work as scientists, experts, coordinators or advisors with the Dutch police, the NFI or legal entities is impressive given the modest size and highly specific character of this field. I think these numbers will even further increase given the signals of increasing number of vacancies and increasing difficulties to find suitable candidates for these vacancies. In addition, the many MFS internships within the criminal justice are just as valuable for the students as for the supervisors. The students provide key capacity and scientific talent for research projects that otherwise could not have been conducted because of the high regular workload of the supervisor. Ideally, each internship provides a win-win-win, for the student, for the MFS and for the host institute. Very regularly a MFS internship leads to a scientific publication in a leading forensic journal illustrating the added value for all parties involved. This added value also exists for the literature thesis. And finally, several experts in the criminal justice system teach in our programme. Also this is a win-win situation, the input from these experts is of great importance to the quality and relevance of the curriculum. But on the other hand being a part-time teacher in the MFS is not only fun and rewarding it also improves your skills and competencies as a teacher. These same experts usually also teach in the criminal justice system.    

What is your vision for the programme and which improvements would you like to realize?

In anticipation of my appointment, I have been working with the IIS colleagues on a new mission and vision for the MFS programme for the coming 5 years leading up to the educational audit in 2022. We will ask input from the students, teachers, IIS colleagues and advisory board with practitioners before finalizing it but I am already very enthusiastic about the outcome.  We aim high, we want to get a good rating for the educational audit in 2022! We want to achieve this by further improving and developing the curriculum, by maintaining a close connection to the Dutch criminal justice system and through international collaboration. More specifically we have defined 5 ambitions :

  1. Innovate the education to increase activated and in-depth learning of the students involving forensic reasoning and relevant forensic methods, procedures and topics
  2. Strive for a more balanced student population with respect to scientific background
  3. Increase and improve the education on digital forensics
  4. Sustain and strengthen the relationships with the professional forensic field in order to secure more options for internships for the students and job opportunities for graduates
  5. Realize a truly international programme by collaboration with universities and forensic institutions abroad