Meet the bug-loving, case-cracking, stereotype-smashing scientist

Dr Paola Magni
Murdoch University forensic scientist, Dr Paola Magni

Murdoch University forensic scientist Dr Paola Magni isn’t put off by critters that slither or slime. But what she can’t stand is a rotting carcass full of maggots that leap at you like popcorn and stick to your face.

Leaping maggots were the least of Paola’s problems when we spoke. She was ready to give birth to her second child any day and was finding it tough going.

Born in Turin Italy, Paola moved to Perth in 2013 where she met her now husband, fell pregnant and fell in love with the State.

“I never looked back,” she says.

Paola is also in love with science and sees it as a way to make a genuine contribution to people’s wellbeing.

She has been involved in crime scene investigations around the world, delving into the secrets insects and other creatures can reveal that can help the courts to decide a person’s guilt.

She’s a consultant to RIS Delitti Imperfetti, an Italian version of US crime series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
which she says is along similar lines but with more waving of hands.

While boundaries are pushed in the TV series in terms of piecing together evidence, how quickly crimes are solved and that police forces use consultants rather than have their own departments, Paola says the basic facts featured on TV are accurate.

She says that includes body farms where human bodies are left to decompose while they are studied.

“They are called anthropology research facilities. There are several in the world and in Australia there is one near Sydney.

“Bodies are given to science to study decomposition in different ways and you can donate your body or the body of a relative.

“The research is great because you can really work on human bodies and see what happens to a human body rather than something like a pig.” 

Paola has also developed a Smartinsects smartphone app designed to help law enforcements agencies and crime scene pathologists. The app has been downloaded more than 10,000 times.

The senior researcher and lecturer at Murdoch University says her world is a little different to the days she spent in Kazakhstan researching the genetics of reptiles and amphibians.

“I was interested in travelling the world to see the nature you can’t see in the big cities and I went to Kazakhstan in the middle of nowhere. For my gypsy heart that was absolutely what I needed at that stage.”

She came away from the experience with her desire to travel satiated but wondering what was the point of the research she had done.

“It didn’t change anything; it didn’t provide information that can change the world.”

It prompted Paola to look at other options and led her to the study of forensic entomology.

“Maybe I wouldn’t change the world, but it might help to change the lives of a person or a family.”

Studying how insects and other animals interact with dead bodies allows her to make inferences about how and when crimes were committed. 

She’s contributed to solving murder cases both on land and in the ocean using aquatic forensics, as well as cases of animal cruelty and biosecurity.

Paola even used the placenta from the birth of her daughter to help train cadaver dogs.

“People thought I was a bit weird. My obstetrician asked what I wanted to do with the placenta, and I asked if I could keep it.”

She was working with a group of volunteers called Search Dog Australia who normally use blood or teeth for training.

“So, why not?” Paola says.

She says forensic entomology is going through a second wave of development with the application of new technology to the study of insects.

It has evolved from the days of a magnifying glass and forceps and picking insects off a bush.

“Now we have hyperspectral imagery, DNA techniques, chemical fingerprinting and isotopes, and even CT scans so we can put little cocoons of insects in straws and put them in a CT scan and try to see what’s inside the cocoon and how the development of the insect happens.”

That, she says, will provide new ways of putting hard evidence in front of the courts.

Paola works in both terrestrial and marine environments, but says on land the bulk of her work involves flies. Although if she is working in a drier environment such as Australia’s interior deserts, then the insects she’ll look for are more likely to be beetles.

While everybody else in Perth might be annoyed at the number of flies around Paola says it makes her work easier.

“When I’m in a terrestrial environment I work on the flies which everyone hates and when I’m in water I work on barnacles which people who have a boat or work in oil and gas hate because they are pests.” 

While she might welcome flies as subject matter Paola says it’s not much fun gathering a bunch of maggots from a dead creature.

“You have these little maggots that have a body structure that bends and jumps on your face.

“Imagine a pot of popcorn. It can be pretty funny, but at the same time pretty annoying.

“They don’t freak me out because I know how they work, but imagine trying to work and having popcorn coming up at your face.”

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Journalist and public relations specialist Allen Newton has worked across major media organisations in Western Australia and PR locally and internationally. He and wife Helen Ganska operate Newton Ganska Communications. Allen started his journalism career at the long defunct Sunday Independent and went on to become the founding editor for news website PerthNow, Managing Editor of The Sunday Times and PerthNow and then Editor-In-Chief of news website WAtoday. As well as news, he has been an editor of food and wine, real estate, TV and travel sections. He’s done everything from co-hosting a local ABC television pop show, to editing a pop music section called Breakout with Big Al, and publishing his own media and marketing magazine.