In our first Fellow Feature we spoke to Dr Noemi Procopio about her research and discussed her experience of being part of the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network.

Dr Noemi Procopio is a Senior Research Fellow at University of Central Lancashire, Principal Investigator at the Forens-OMICS Team and a UKRI Future Leaders Fellow.

Noemi and her research team apply omics methodologies – approaches regularly used in biology to create a comprehensive analysis of genetic or molecular profiles of humans, organisms and cells – to forensic science. Hence, ‘Forens-OMICS.’

The problem
She explained that these methods are widely used in biology and medical fields but are less explored in forensics, partially due to a lack of funding. Her work involves analysis on human skeletal remains, donated for the use of forensic research.

Noemi sources bone samples from body farms in the US for the extraction of bio-molecules such as DNA, proteins, metabolites and lipids. The bio-molecules are then examined to date the bones and understand age at death. For forensics, this is critical information that is not yet accurately determined with a specific method. Currently estimations are made through examining bones for weathering, which can limit identification.

The goal is to date these bones accurately to solve forensic cases, including mass disasters and war, through accurate identification. These techniques would also be hugely useful if applied in other fields such as archaeology.

In sourcing bones from these body farms, Noemi has observed that the varying treatment methods of bones impacts viability for analysis. For example, bones that have been boiled using methods for classic anthropological approach don’t have the same bio-molecules needed for her research.

Impact solutions
The first target is to create these methods, to identify those specific biomarkers that can be used widely in general forensic analysis. Noemi and her team have identified several of these biomarkers that could provide the answers. One such method involves studying the way proteins decay over time through the analysis of an amino acid, looking how a particular chemical group depreciates over time. This could potentially determine how long a protein has been decaying. Understanding this would have a major impact as it may allow forensic teams to accurately date remains and help identify unknown victims.

In order to develop such methods, a wide range of bones that are viable for this type of analysis is needed. To get to this point developing a bespoke method for the treatment of bones for forensic research is important. Noemi is currently sharing her findings with facilities on this.

Networking and collaboration
When attending a Future Leaders Fellows Development Network event Noemi met other Fellows facing the same problem. They are now collaborating to address these issues in the treatment of human remains in multiple fields and applying for a Plus Fund.

Network programmes
Noemi has participated in a variety of Network programmes including leadership development events, 360 Feedback Coaching and Mentoring.

During the Mentoring process she was matched with a Professor from the University of Liverpool in the humanities.

“My mentor’s speciality was very different from mine, but it was a perfect match because she had such a busy life like me! It was great to have that support from another woman. I told her I feel like I’m not doing enough, like I should be doing even more work than I am already doing, submitting even more papers and applying for grants. She told me I just needed to focus on my research, and that reassurance and support was great. This was probably my top experience in the Network, as we are looking to submit a paper together!”

Increasing profile
Noemi noted that through her research, and being part of the Network, more people have been reaching out for her expert opinions and support. She noted that she is now working under ‘problem lead’ research and feels that this will make a huge difference in practical forensic analysis and identification. She has built up connections with practitioners working in the field because of the Future Leaders Fellows Development Network and these relationships open up pathways for further research.

“Every time I’m asked about being an FLF, I tell them it’s one of the best things to happen to my career, we have such a lot of support, and it’s amazing!”