Jul 30 2020

Forensic Scientist of Note: Walther Parson

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One of the most familiar names in forensic genomics is Dr. Walther Parson. An Associate Professor at the Institute of Legal Medicine at the Medical University of Innsbruck, his resume is long and is filled with many notable accomplishments. He supervised the establishment of the Austrian National DNA Database Laboratory in 1997, where he currently oversees the High Through-Put DNA Database Laboratory and the Forensic Genomics research group.


Walther has been instrumental in assisting with the identifications of victims of numerous mass fatality incidents including the 2004 tsunami. In 2014, he wrote a book called Irgendwann Kommt Alles ans Licht (At Some Point Everything Will Come to Light) detailing his work in identifying the missing Romanov children, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Günter Messner, and German poet, Friedrich Schiller.



As engrained into forensic genomics as Walther has become, it’s strange to think that it all happened by chance. In a past interview with ISHI, Walther shared that while obtaining his degree in Zoology, he worked as a taxi driver. Upon returning home from vacation in September of 1994, he planned to return to driving taxis when a friend told him of a contract position at the Innsbruck Institute of Legal Medicine. Though the job paid less than he made as a taxi driver, he thought it would be a better investment into his professional future and would buy him time to look for a “proper job.” Luckily for all of us, fate intervened, and the short-term position has led to years of advancements for the field of forensic genomics.


Dr. Walther Parson has presented on the ISHI stage many times before. We are honored he is returning for the 31st International Symposium on Human Identification this September, where he will be presenting on the VISAGE Project.


In 1991 the 5,300 year-old mummy, Ötzi the Iceman, was found in a melting glacier in the Alps. Using a sample of hip bone, scientists sequenced his genome to determine how he was related to regional ethnic groups. Later, Walther’s team compared DNA on Ötzi’s y-chromosome with blood donated by 3,700 people in Western Austria to see how many descendants exist.


Last year, at the 20th European Forensic DNA Working Group Meeting in Hamburg, Germany, our Promega colleague, Martina Vokurkova Chocova had the opportunity to sit down with Walther so that we can get to know him a little better.


You studied biology and then forensic molecular biology in Innsbruck, and right now, you are considered to be one of the leading gurus in the forensic field. Tell me, what was the impulse for you to become a forensic scientist? Was it fate or did you want it from the start?

Well, I should probably say that I really wanted it from the start, because it very much fit my career, but the truth is I was searching for a job after I completed my master’s in biology. I did a road trip. I came back and needed to work to get money, and I thought I would do taxi driving. That’s what I did during the studies. Three days after I came, this job position opened, and I took it.


Good for us! So, what would be your elevator sentence. Say, you’re in the lift and there was someone who doesn’t know you, because he or she is from a different field. So, how would you introduce yourself? Who is Walther Parson?

Well, I would say, “Hello, my name is Walther Parson. I am a skier and mountaineer, and for professional, I’m a forensic geneticist.”


That’s nice! My second question is about your book, because not everyone knows that you wrote a book. Are you considering translating it into English, because it’s available only in German. What is the book about?

The idea for the book came from a publishing company. The publisher sort of persuaded me to write a book for the broad community (rather than the scientific community writing that I usually do). I started to like it the more that I was thinking about it. So I thought, if I’m going to write a book in forensic genetics, I don’t want to write about the fate of the witness or the brutality of the murderers or the blood. There are enough books that describe this, and I know people like it a lot, but I thought I would like to put an emphasis on the science. So, I tried to take the challenge to translate the science into very simple words to make it understandable for a broader audience. And I think I’ve partially succeeded with this. I know that it’s very much appreciated by students, or by people who have a scientific background or interest. One of my friends said, “You can’t read your book on the toilet,” which tells me that it’s kind of a level too high for this kind of audience, but more or less, I’m very happy with the outcome. And what I hear from colleagues is that they would like to read the book, but they don’t understand German. So, it’s a consideration, but it’s quite, quite difficult to translate a book from German to English. Not the translation per se, but the process of commercializing it. So, I didn’t pursue it really strongly, but that’s probably something that I would need to do in order to get this done. If time allows, I probably will do it.


Ok, well maybe your next book will be in English?

That would be the best idea.


The third question is a little bit more of a private question. You have a very happy family life, right? You have three daughters, two of which are twins. I know very well how challenging that can be sometimes. So, how do you balance your family life and your work life? You travel quite a bit, so how do you do that?

That’s true. Well, first of all, I need to have somebody who is taking care of the family business, and that’s my wife. And, second, so I’m trying to constantly refine work time with private time, which means I travel, and I’m gone a lot of the time, but when I’m here, I try to be active in it. Not working, besides being at home or doing emails or whatever. I try to be with the family. That helps a lot, because you generate quality time, and quality time is what counts. The price I have to pay is that I don’t have much time for my friends that I used to have when I was at university, so that is something that I need to work on. But what I also want to do very much is be out in nature. I like mountains very much, so I try to combine this with the family. It’s a struggle from week to week. So, we always refine this. We make plans for the future, and we have our holidays already worked out for the year, so we know when we can have time together, and I also know when I need to travel for work.


Ok, and it works well I guess.

So far it works good, yeah.


Do you know how many publications you have? 

No, I don’t know that one.


Ok, well, when did you stop counting?

Oh my. I think I stopped counting very early. My first paper that I wrote as a first author dates back to 1998, and my second paper I wrote not before 2000. So, at this very early stage, I thought, “oh my God, this is going to take ages until I have a very comparable track record to other scientists.” But then I figured out how science really works. Science works a lot in networking. You have a couple of different projects in different stages. You start writing a manuscript and you see that you lack some data, so you go back to the laboratory or have people do that work for you. You have PhD students, you have collaborators, you have post-docs. It’s like cooking several meals. You need to take care of the different stages of the meals, and you need to know when they are good to put them on the platter and disseminate them. With that, if you like to do that, and if you like networking and collaborating, the publications come automatically. That’s the time that I stopped counting them.


Well I found on ResearchGate that you have 554 research items there, 64,531 reads, and 12,487 citations.

I’m impressed!


I know, me too! The last question is a little bit of a tricky one. Just imagine you are in a jungle and you are on a tree. You have one gun with only one bullet inside, and under the tree there is a lion, a pair of pumas, and a jaguar. What will you do? Who will you shoot at?

Good question! I don’t like to shoot animals to begin with, but apparently in that story I need to do that.


Well, you need to survive. That’s the task.

All three of them can climb the tree, right? So, probably I will wait. They are hungry, right? They are starving. So, I will wait until they kill themselves, and I assume the lion will be the winner, and then I shoot the lion.


Ok, well that’s a way to do it! The right answer, or one of the right answers is that you shoot the lion, which you said, then you put on the pumas, which are shoes, and then you drive off in the Jaguar. Thank you very much for your time and for this interview!