Under the Microscope – Nathan Scudder

Forensic/Investigative Genetic Genealogy (F/IGG) offers a powerful yet evolving capability for human identification, with its use by law enforcement having far-reaching implications for the criminal justice system internationally. While forensic genetics and law enforcement intelligence/investigations have developed their own best practice guidelines and, in some cases, standards and oversight, these still have to be developed for F/IGG. The combination of F/IGG with other forensic disciplines presents further challenges, perhaps requiring the development of a master set of ‘best practices’.


To determine how F/IGG should continue to evolve, it is necessary to contextualise its capabilities within forensic, law enforcement and genealogical frameworks. Existing interim guidelines provide the basis for further discussion and the development of policy and procedures for use of F/IGG, along with considerations for its technical, legal, ethical and scientific validation.


In his presentation at ISHI 33 this year, Nathan Scudder will explore the evolving capabilities of FGG in relation to the status of other forensic disciplines with respect to quality assurance and operational use.  This will include the feasibility of adapting proficiency testing programs to the new field of F/IGG similar to those used in other areas of forensic science


We chatted with Nathan to discuss the current standards that exist for F/IGG, how F/IGG has evolved over the years, and advice for those looking to work in genetic genealogy as well as advice for labs hiring a genealogist.



How has forensic investigative genetic genealogy (F/IGG) evolved over the years? How do you think it is viewed now that it’s been used on a number of different cases?

Forensic/Investigative Genetic Genealogy is evolving as a capability with a practical application across a range of serious crime types, as well as for human remains identification. F/IGG has shown to be highly successful, depending on factors such as population group and availability of genealogical records (which can be more of an issue for law enforcement outside of the United States). Public sentiment has, I believe, shifted to supporting the use of this technique. But that same public sentiment could easily turn against F/IGG, if it is not used appropriately and responsibly.


What standards currently exist for the use of F/IGG?

At a cross-agency level, governance and standards for F/IGG are limited. The US Department of Justice published an Interim Policy in 2019. However, the application of this policy is limited in applying only to US federal agencies and some other labs in receipt of federal funding. Developing best practice guidelines for use of F/IGG and training of practitioners is a focus at present. In Australia and New Zealand, this work is being progressed by a Community of Interest drawn from all Australian police agencies.


How does F/IGG work differ in the United States compared to international use? Has it been widely adopted?

Applying F/IGG outside of the United States does add extra complexity. Many of the key providers of SNP analysis, particularly for forensic analysis of degraded samples, are based in the United States. This adds logistical challenges in the safe and secure transportation of evidence (even more challenging at the height of the pandemic).

Different countries have different laws around privacy and cross-border transfer of data, and all these factors need to be considered before undertaking F/IGG. Finally, while the process and tools for applying F/IGG is reasonably similar worldwide, there can be significant differences in availability of genealogical records and information to help identify matches. As an example, birth records in Australia are not generally available for 100 years, and individual census records were destroyed up until recently. This can require different workflow and processes to resolve cases outside of the United States.


Where would you like to see the practice of forensic genetic genealogy in the next 5 or 10 years?

In 5-10 years, I hope that F/IGG has matured into a practice with even greater and more accessible training and certification for practitioners. I would hope that there are agreed standards, perhaps even an International Standard, covering the professional use of genetic genealogy to deliver a range of public benefits, from adoption to solving serious crime. As F/IGG knows no borders, these developments need to include stakeholders from around the world, with careful consideration of cultural concerns, particularly for some First Nations peoples, and legal differences.


Do you have any advice for those who would like to perform genealogy work on forensic cases? What should labs consider when looking to hire a genealogist?

Policing is evolving to include many more external experts in investigating and preventing crime. I see genealogy as one of many professions which policing agencies will need to leverage in future to solve cases which may otherwise become cold cases. This is already starting to happen in the US and internationally. Genealogists will not need to carry handcuffs and guns, but they will need a broad appreciation of the investigative process, and particularly the intelligence cycle. Many of the skills that will make a great F/IGG practitioner will be similar to the skillset of a genetic genealogist involved in other cases, such as adoption work.

Good communication skills, an ability to strictly maintain client confidentiality, and an ability to work with a wide range of records and resolve complex cases, will all be just as important in a law enforcement context. But an effective F/IGG practitioner will also need the self-discipline not to be drawn too deeply into cases, and an ability to maintain a separation between their F/IGG work and their personal and family life.


If you had to pick one thing, what do you enjoy most about your job?

I enjoy the people I work with, and the range of opportunities I’ve had over the last 23 years with the Australian Federal Police. I work with some fantastic teams, who all want to make a difference and make society safer.


If you could have dinner with anyone (dead or alive), who would it be? Why?

I’m a genealogist, so will have to say one of my long-dead ancestors. When you’re researching your own family tree, you sometimes wonder about assumptions you make based on fragments of information about your family. It’d be very interesting to talk to your own 4th, 5th or 6th Great Grandparent and see what life was really like for them.


If you’ve attended ISHI in the past, what do you most enjoy about coming to the conference? If you haven’t, what are you most looking forward to?

I’ve been to three ISHI conferences (before the pandemic) and also tuned in remotely from Australia while borders were closed. I really enjoy meeting people, and understanding more about research being conducted around the world. The talks and case studies are always fascinating, and the social program is also excellent. I’m very much looking forward to the ISHI conference in Washington DC.


What’s one thing that others may not know about you?

In my Year 11 school report, my physics teacher – while giving me a passing grade – strongly suggested I stay away from the sciences. So I instead embarked on studying law. Twenty-five years later, I completed my PhD and I now manage biometrics in a forensic laboratory.