Finishing the Fulbright

I’ve finished my Fulbright year and it was incredible. I spent twelve months living in LA and researching at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Irvine. Jennifer Mnookin and Bill Thompson, my hosts, were incredibly generous with their time and support.

I presented at the UCLA Workshop on Law, Science & Evidence, the International Association for Identification Conference, and the European Academy of Forensic Science, and took out Best Presentation at the International Symposium on the Forensic Sciences, partied at the Australian Embassy and took Second Place in the Best Illusion of the Year Contest. I attended the NIJ Conference, met with Senator Rockefeller’s Staff on Capitol Hill, gave two talks at Harvard, and had two papers published and volunteered in New Orleans.

I learned a great deal from chats with Simon Cole, Beth Loftus, Barry Scheck, Bill Thompson, Gary Edmond, Jeremy Wolfe, Jernnifer Mnookin, Michael Risinger, and Itiel Dror. I visited San Diego, Portland, Seattle, Phoenix, the Grand Canyon, Florida, New York, Washington DC, New Orleans, Boston, Tasmania, Amsterdam, Manchester, The Hague, and had a white Christmas in Colorado.

Below is my final report submitted to the Fulbright Commission.

Fulbright Program Summary

I spent a year at UCLA and UCI investigating the judgements and decisions of fingerprint examiners, juror’s understanding of forensic evidence, and contemporary legal and scientific frameworks for presenting forensic evidence in court. I presented at six conferences and at UCLA and Harvard Medical School, published two papers, met with Senator Jay Rockefeller’s staff on Capitol Hill, and connected with top US academics in psychology and law. Working in the US has developed my research skills, fostered international research networks, and helped disseminate the results of my research to the best scientific and professional communities. They say the Fulbright stays with you forever, and I hope it does; it has made me a better person.

Plans for the Future

In the short term, I will submit my PhD Thesis in late 2013. I am currently applying for postdoctoral positions in Australia and in the US, including a fellowship at Harvard through the American Australian Association. In the long term, I aspire to be a Professor at a research intensive, Australian university within twenty years. I hope to lead a multidisciplinary visual expertise research team, and affect justice systems in Australia and abroad. I will teach in innovative ways and embrace the rapidly changing higher education research environment with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and flipped classrooms. Along with my research and teaching, I want be a public ambassador for science, including public intellectualism in the mass media and a science communicator for young people. I want to be involved in public policy debate, possibly as the Queensland or Australian Chief Scientist.

Your Fulbright Story

In the fallout of the US Congress funded report from the National Academy of Sciences—Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward—it was clear that the US was leading the world in improving the forensic sciences, but it was less clear who was going to do the basic research. After explaining the situation to my good friend and 2008 Fulbright Scholar, David Liu, he encouraged me to apply for a Fulbright Scholarship to tackle part of the problem.

Submitting the application was rewarding in itself. It forced me to consider the social and economic impacts of my research, how our lives might be improved as a result, and how my research would promote mutual understanding between Australia and the US. Appreciating the bigger picture gave me a new purpose and motivation, and changed the way I thought about my PhD. After receiving the Commission’s call with the good news I felt simultaneous elation and dread—a group of well regarded and influential Australians and Americans believe in me, and I felt pressure to deliver on my promises.

The flexibility of the Fulbright departure date meant that I had plenty of time to prepare and think big, and this thinking helped me to craft the winning entry in the Australia-New Zealand ‘Three Minute Thesis’ Competition. Before departing, I married my partner of ten years, Jessica Coffen, on the balcony of our apartment (largely because the US would not recognise our de facto relationship).

We arrived in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, in April 2012 and lived in a small apartment on what was recently crowned, “The coolest block in America,” by GQ Magazine. Over sixteen million people a year visit Venice Beach—more than Disneyland—and it is the birthplace of skate and bodybuilding culture. The Venice basketball courts well-known for their streetball, and several NBA players have been recruited there. I was immediately struck by the number of homeless people across Los Angeles. Over the first few weeks I couldn’t walk past without asking if they were okay. I woke one man who was sprawled along the sidewalk and he said, “I’m fine, but thank you so much for checking.” I soon learned that the homeless were generally okay, but I still struggled to reconcile the feeling of unease whilst walking past the row of Ferraris next to the row of homeless people.

After settling in to my new home I quickly got back to work and research. I collaborated with researchers at UCLA, funded by the US National Institute of Justice, investigating the judgements and decisions of fingerprint examiners—can experts predict the decisions they are likely to be right versus wrong about? We are currently preparing a manuscript for publication. I presented at a workshop hosted by my Fulbright advisor, Professor Jennifer Mnookin, as part of The UCLA Program on Understanding Law, Science and Evidence. I was, by far, the youngest and most junior academic in the room, and so it was an honour working with some of the top legal minds from all over the country.

I traveled to Florida for the Best Illusion of the Year Contest where I presented a compelling visual illusion that I co-discovered, where people’s faces appear deformed and grotesque when viewed in quick succession. We took second place in the competition and our illusion has been viewed over 12 million times on YouTube, and was featured in Nature News, New Scientist, National Geographic, The Huffington Post, and MSNBC.

Later, I spoke to a packed room at the 97th Annual Conference of the International Association for Identification in Phoenix, Arizona. Most attendees were local, state, and federal police officers from around the country, and it was nerve racking presenting as an ‘outsider’. I presented the results of an experiment showing that qualified, court-practicing fingerprint experts are exceedingly accurate compared with novices, but are not infallible. And I considered the ramifications for the future study of forensic expertise, and the implications for expert testimony and public policy in the US and Australia. My research and policy suggestions turned out to be far more controversial that I had expected—it seemed to polarise the room.

Throughout the year, I had two publications accepted and I presented my PhD and Fulbright research at the European Academy of Forensic Science in The Hague, the International Symposium on the Forensic Sciences in Hobart, the National Institute of Justice Conference in Washington, D.C., and Harvard Medical School. The highlight of my academic encounters was meeting with Senator Jay Rockefeller’s staff on Capitol Hill. Rockefeller has introduced a bill—the Forensic Science and Standards Act of 2012—to promote research and reform in the forensic sciences. The content of the bill is exactly aligned with my research agenda, and my Fulbright research in particular. The staff asked for copies of my published research and asked me to formally comment on the legislation in preparation for Senate Committee markup. This trip and its fruits would not have eventuated without support from the Gregory Schwartz Enrichment Grant, and I am grateful.

During my Fulbright, I made a conscious effort not to be consumed by my research, and to experience the US culture and people. I visited Washington, D.C., to see the Constitution and the Bill of Rights at the National Archives, and I toured the Washington Monument, World War Two Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, National Air and Space Museum, National Gallery of Art, White House and Department of Justice. And, whilst walking around George Washington University, I visited Fulbright Hall, named in his honour in 1996.

Back in LA, and over the course of several months, I ate mexican food and drank tequila for Cinco de Mayo; visited iconic art galleries such as the Getty Center and Getty Villa; visited the Natural History Museum and stood underneath the Space Shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center; strolled the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Santa Monica Pier; watched, with thousands of others, the transit of Venus and a solar eclipse at Griffith Observatory; felt like a kid again at Disneyland and Universal Studios; had a night at the orchestra with John Williams; and spent two weeks living the lifestyle of the rich and famous in Beverly Hills.

As part of conference travel and road trips with Australian visitors I walked through Central Park and New York University in Manhattan; ate soul food in Brooklyn, clam chowder in Seattle Public Market, and drank wine in Sonoma; had close encounters at the San Diego Zoo; spent Christmas Day snowboarding in Colorado; watched fireworks in portland on the 4th of July; danced to jazz-funk in New Orleans; and helicoptered through the Grand Canyon.

Nine months in, I felt I should be taking better advantage of my Fulbright by collaborating with academics at institutions other than UCLA. I spoke to several academics and was invited to spend my remaining three months at the University of California, Irvine. I worked closely with Professor William Thompson and former New Zealand Fulbrighter Eryn Newman on a new project investigating juror’s understanding and interpretation of forensic evidence, and another on legal and scientific frameworks for presenting forensic evidence in court. I watched the Presidential Debates in the public square and witnessed some people’s joy and some people’s sadness about the final result at an election night party.

My Fulbright projects and collaborations are ongoing, but I tied up loose ends at UCLA and UCI and my new friends and collaborators held a farewell party for me and my wife Jessica. Having now become experts in packing, moving and travelling, we boarded a Qantas flight back to Australia.

It is rare for academics, let alone PhD students, have the time, resources, and freedom to think deeply about their research and its impact on society. This is what the Fulbright afforded me. I connected with top US academics in psychology and law, which broadened my thinking from the narrow field of cognitive science out to law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Working in the US has developed my research skills, fostered international research networks, and helped disseminate the results of my research to the best scientific and professional communities.

In the months before my Fulbright application submission researchers at UCLA were awarded a million dollar grant from the US department of justice to investigate accuracy in fingerprint identification. Their proposed research agenda complemented mine perfectly, and the project was to be led by, Jennifer Mnookin, a Professor of Law, and Dr Itiel Dror, a researcher with a substantial track record in forensic science research. I felt I could bring my established scientific methodological skills to their research program and they could help me bring the results of our basic research to the justice system. Working at a highly ranked and respected institution was a bonus that came with partnering with the most productive and influential academics and researchers in my field.

When I tell people I am a Fulbright Scholar—no matter whether in dodgy jazz bar in New Orleans or in the Senate Building on Capitol Hill in DC—the response is always, “Wow, that’s amazing. Congratulations!” For me, being recognised as a Fulbright Scholar is an indication that people see something in me that I don’t necessarily see or that I haven’t fully realised. The Fulbright name opened doors that, all else being equal, would have been closed. Presenting at Harvard, meeting decision makers on Capitol Hill and going toe-to- toe with top intellectuals at workshops and conferences has changed my outlook about what is possible.

The Fulbright experience has taught me about my limitations but also what I’m capable of. Meeting and learning from fellow Fulbrighters and top academics has broadened my thinking and strengthened my resolve to make an impact. I feel that I can now combine the best of American-style aspiration and individuality with Australian-style humility and mateship. They say the Fulbright stays with you forever, and I hope it does; it has made me a better person.