As a mother of five – including 10-year-old twins – Griffith University PhD candidate Megan Best knows the importance and strength of family connections.
Furthermore, the empathy born of such appreciation complements Megan’s scientific expertise as she contributes to a project of national significance, one reuniting Australian families with the remains of soldiers lost during the Asia-Pacific campaign of World War Two.
Under the auspices of the Australian Defence Force and led at Griffith by forensic science senior lecturer Ms Kirsty Wright, Unrecovered War Casualties – Army (UWCA) spans science, military history and more than 70 years of family uncertainty as researchers like Megan apply, develop and refine DNA techniques to identify long lost war casualties.
“Through UWCA, we have access to military field notes that serve as a great lead for the task of identifying these soldiers who have been lost for decades after sacrificing everything for Australia in theatres like Papua New Guinea,” says Megan.
“As you work with DNA and conduct high-level scientific analysis, at the same time you find yourself thinking about these soldiers’ families.
“To play a part in bringing back someone whose fate and whereabouts have been unknown for so long, is very important.”
Megan, from Jimboomba, has become expert in balancing the demands of family, work and study.
“It’s a challenging life, but a very fulfilling one. I go from working in the lab to taking my daughter to her driving lessons or the boys to football. Career or family, there’s never a dull moment,” she says.
“I’ve always loved study. After leaving high school I studied natural medicine and thought I might pursue a career in that direction.
“It was only when the twins were of school age that I thought I might go back to study, this time focusing on a new area of science.”
She recently began a three-year PhD in Forensic Biology specialising in identifying human remains — particularly historical and military — through analysis of mitochondrial DNA passed down through the maternal line.
Mitochondrial DNA is commonly used in forensics to identify human remains, especially older remains, and offers a greater likelihood of finding a match with a living relative, regardless of the number of maternal generations separating them.
After her PhD, Megan hopes to focus on disaster victim identification, perhaps with the Australian Federal Police.
“Victim identification carries ramifications on scientific and human levels,” she says.
“To have someone returned to you is a comfort and a resolution, and to play a role in that process constantly reminds me of the purpose and value of science, and the importance of family.”