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Help advance science at Lowlands!

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Help advance science at Lowlands!

Photo: Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA) 

Break into a home and hug a stranger. This activity is on offer at this year's Lowlands festival. And all for a good cause: participants help advance forensic science! Two young researchers, PhD students Katharina Draxel and Yoram Goedhart, will during the experiments be checking where participants leave their traces, both when perpetrating a crime and when performing innocent acts. This will give them a clearer understanding of how traces such as DNA and fingerprints end up in various scenarios. This research is important for finding fact in criminal cases. Between the performances, you can slip into the shoes of a devious burglar and unsuspecting citizen and betray yourself by leaving traces! 

The researchers are conducting their experiments at Lowlands Science for the 'No trace to lose' project. This project is a collaborative venture by the Netherlands Forensic Institute (NFI), Amsterdam University of Applied Science (HvA), Vrije Universiteit (VU), and the Netherlands Police Academy. Katharina Draxel and Yoram Goedhart will explore various possibilities at the festival site in Biddinghuizen. Katharina, for example, is taking a few hundred T-shirts and fluorescent hand cream to Lowlands this summer. "I ask visitors to put on a T-shirt and hug each other. In the process, they get fluorescent cream on their hands, clearly showing where they leave their traces on the T-shirts."

Katharina is investigating innocent acts. The first time the NFI was at Lowlands in 2015 for scientific research, they instead had participants do something criminal: drag a body. Where do you get hold of someone when dragging a corpse? Where do people leave their traces? "Those experiments provided interesting insights that I can now use again for my research. I will compare this data with innocent human contact, such as an embrace. So where do you hold each other, and where do the traces end up? And how does that picture differ from dragging a person?" Katharina asks. 

Suspect's statement 

In criminal cases, it is commonplace for the police or the NFI to find DNA on a victim's clothes. The accused have the opportunity to provide an explanation to prove their innocence. This person could, for example, say that they saw the victim earlier that day and greeted them with an embrace. That would explain the traces on the clothes. "We hope to use the data from these experiments to make substantiated claims about whether traces are a better match for hugging, for example, rather than dragging a body," Katharina explains. 

After the embrace, she takes the volunteers to a darkened room in a container where the researcher illuminates traces of the initially translucent fluorescent cream with blacklight lamps. "We photographically record all the traces on the T-shirt. After that, the participants take off the T-shirt again, and we take another photo to see if anything has changed about the traces and if the way of taking it off affects them." She then takes the T-shirts and studies the best way of packaging them. Her PhD focuses on packaging, transporting, and storing evidence. 

Burglary race 

Yoram's study focuses on the traces at a crime scene: how do you find the right traces of the perpetrator? "I focus on homes. If a home is broken into, how do you know which traces a perpetrator might leave behind? And where will you find them? I also want to study how these differ from the traces left by the residents themselves. Burglaries are unfortunately a common offence. They have a high impact on residents and their sense of security," he explains. "At Lowlands, I study where participants leave their traces in an everyday scenario, that of going inside using a key, as if they were the occupants, and compare it to a criminal scenario, the burglary." The researcher has turned this into a break-in race, where festival-goers are asked to break in with visible finger paint on their hands as fast as possible. The time pressure prevents participants from overthinking what they do and allows them to experience the adrenaline of a real burglar. 

Flipping and angling 

To make the burglary race as realistic as possible, Yoram sets up walls with doors and windows. To break in, the visitors use two familiar burglary techniques: flipping and angling. "These methods do not require specific expertise or special materials. They are familiar tricks used by everyone who locks themselves out. This immediately shows how easy it is to break in when a door is unlocked. We in this way also immediately raise awareness." Once inside, participants escape by climbing out a window. "Sometimes you can tell from the very position of a handprint how someone climbed out. The police have a lot of experience with that. Still, it is good to know where to expect DNA and fingerprints in various scenarios and how best to interpret them. That is valuable knowledge for practical policing."


The studies are part of Lowlands Science. The festival offers a large, diverse population for the scientific experiments. The researchers are looking forward to it but are also nervous. "We expect chaos," they laugh. "It's a festival with many people we ask to do some crazy things: climbing through windows and hugging people. What happens in that container is very unnatural, but hey: it’s all for science!"

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