How can physicists solve crimes?

“I thought I would go into an area like nuclear physics,” says Raquel Murray, Master of Modelling and Computational Science, class of 2012. Instead she researches the physics of how blood spatters at a crime scene. “I’ve gone in a completely different direction and I don’t regret one moment of it.”

Murray’s lifetime passion for physics led her to enroll in a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. To help pay for school, she took an assistant position in her third year with professor Franco Gaspari. Gaspari’s mentorship helped her find her true calling, and inspired her to pursue postgraduate work in forensic physics.

Ballistics, Bullets and Blood

She worked with Gaspari on a research project that used physics in blood spatter analysis. Using simulated blood encased in ballistics gel, Murray shot the gel with a riot ball from a paintball gun and captured its flight pattern using a camera. With the recorded flight motion and a computer algorithm, the research aims to help develop a system that could be used by police to solve crimes even when they don’t have a body to work with.

“Once the project was completed, I realized there were a lot of open doors and much more I could do,” she said.

Murray enrolled in the master’s program at the university in September 2010.

From Academic Investigation to Crime Scene

By studying physical factors of blood droplets such as drag coefficients, ranges of speed exiting the ballistics gel, and average radius, she can develop models for “backward tracking.” That means she can analyse a blood stain, and work back from there to deduce information about the nature and location of the injury that caused it. By adding information from blood spatter physics from other forensic scientists, she could determine whether a victim was standing or kneeling, what part of the body was injured, or even whether the wound was self-inflicted.

In September 2012, Murray plans to begin her PhD at Cranfield University in England. There she’ll use its experimental facilities, which include firearms, explosives, chainsaws and other weapons, to test her research further.

Raquel Murray

Raquel Murray

University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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