Inspiring EMCRs

EMCR Forum


Paola Magni

Paola Magni shares her journey from student of the sciences to forensic scientist and role model.

In a criminal investigation, the perpetrator and the victim always have one thing in common—their environment. They breathe the same air, touch the same water, walk on the same sand. They are both in the same place at the same time, and when the crime occurs, they leave traces of themselves on each other and they exchange traces with the environment.

Blood, hair, insects and pollens are all pieces of an investigation puzzle. The difference is that normal puzzles are sold in a box, while solving a crime puzzle requires thinking outside of the box.

I believe I was born a biologist.  Always curious about the little creatures around me, I could spend hours watching fish in a tank or looking for maggots amongst chestnuts. So I don’t think anyone was surprised when I announced I was going to university to pursue a natural sciences degree.

This was in Italy in 1999, when forensic science wasn't a discipline taught at university, and CSI wasn’t a TV hit. But as they say, when you don't know, you don't care. I threw myself into university and studied what I loved. All the bits and pieces of nature, from past to present, from microbes to whales, from fossils to stars.

After gaining my scuba diving instructor licence, I travelled to the Red Sea for marine biology fieldwork. I was even awarded an extraordinary scholarship for a research opportunity in Kazakhstan, where I learnt weird and beautiful things about the genetics of the toads of the Aral Sea (no transformations to Prince Charming, I hasten to add). My first paper was published while I was still an undergraduate. But deep down, I knew something was missing.

I didn’t want to study nature in terms of ‘science for science’s sake'. What I wanted to do was to use what I had learnt about nature and all its little creatures for a real-world application, something that could change lives.

But how? Sometimes the answer you are looking for arrives when you least expect it. By chance, I enrolled in an elective entomology unit.

In the very first class, the professor said: “Insects are the animals most present on Earth, but they are relatively poorly studied. Entomologists usually deal with insects that are beautiful, like butterflies and beetles; those that are harmful, like mosquitoes and aphids; or insects that are useful like bees. However, there’s an emerging interest in using insects to reconstruct crime-related events, and it’s called forensic entomology.”

I didn’t want to study nature in terms of ‘science for science’s sake'. What I wanted to do was to use what I had learnt … for a real-world application, something that could change lives.

It was the briefest of mentions, but at that moment, I fell in love. But every great love story comes with enormous challenges. Mine included the fact that there were no forensic entomologists in Italy to learn from, my English was limited, and I couldn't afford to study overseas.

If you stay in your comfort zone, you cannot learn. To make your dreams come true, you have to overcome the challenges and set yourself new goals. And you have to be the one to take the first step.

I got a part-time job so I could afford to buy the expensive study materials I needed, and contacted people overseas who were interested in speaking English with me every day on Skype. I also knocked on the door of the Director of Forensic Medicine in my city and told him I was available 24/7 to work alongside his team of forensic pathologists on their forensic entomology cases.

He probably didn’t think I was serious at the time. That realisation came much later, when he found himself writing the preface of my Master thesis, which formed the basis of my book on forensic entomology. It is now the most-used forensic entomology manual by Italian law enforcement agencies.

Five years spent working as a forensic entomologist in Italy went fast. I have been called on as an expert witness on several cases involving suspicious deaths, animal cruelty, and biosecurity. Every single case was a learning curve. The cases were hard and confronting. Besides the technical skills, I had to develop the leadership and confidence to deal with pathologists, law enforcement officers, judges, and lawyers who would grill me in the witness box.

I didn't have answers to many of their questions, and it was embarrassing. Not just for me, but for science, because those specific questions were never considered in terms of research. It meant cases couldn't be closed, and victims and their families couldn't get the justice they deserved. As a scientist, I felt responsible. So, I decided to start a PhD to carry out research that could give more answers. I travelled a lot to meet the best experts in the world. I spent time in a ‘body farm’ in the USA to learn more about crime scenes on land, and then went to Macedonia to learn more about crime scenes in water.

I completed part of my PhD in Australia, and during this time I fell in love again. This time with the country and its scientific opportunities. While Italy might not have recognised my chosen profession, Australia offered me a post-doctoral research position,  and then a job as an academic. In the years since I arrived in ‘the Land Down Under’, I have expanded my research from forensic entomology to aquatic forensics. I have developed a profile as a science communicator and advocate for women in science, through media opportunities, speaking at TEDx, and even global awards. I also found love with the man I'm now married to, and I had a baby girl.

Paola Magni with her daughter.

When I look back at my career odyssey, I can see how my experiences have shaped my teaching and mentoring philosophy.

The standard classroom is not for my students. What they need from me is challenging research, thought-provoking theory, and exposure to unique life experiences that ignite their desire to learn. They also crave opportunities to contribute to research projects, meet with game-changing scientists, and participate in real-life crime investigations. My job is to ensure they are ready for the real world when they graduate.

I believe in being a role model, especially for girls who are in love with science but scared of the prospect of becoming a scientist. I want to create a legacy for the next generation of female scientists. As the 2019 Australian FameLab winner (I went on to place fourth in the world), I also recognise the critical role science communication has to play in getting the community to think differently about science.

My message to the world is that every scientist, regardless of age, gender, colour, and background should have the courage to think boldly and freely. My advice is to take your passions to the next level, get inspired by the people you meet, the things you read, and the nature you see. Be kind and go beyond the ordinary.

If you can’t find a role model, become one.

© 2023 Australian Academy of Science