Solving crime through chemistry

Queen’s University chemist Diane Beauchemin earns lifetime achievement award for her cutting-edge research.

Queen’s University researcher Diane Beauchemin has spent years working on techniques to help law enforcement solve crime and to more pragmatically assess food safety.

Thanks to her efforts, Dr. Beauchemin has earned the Canadian Society for Chemistry's Clara Benson Award, recognizing a woman scientist who has made a distinguished contribution to chemistry while working in Canada. In 2018, she was the first woman in Canada to receive the Gerhard Herzberg award from the Canadian Society of Analytical Sciences and Spectroscopy and the Maxxam award from the Canadian Society for Chemistry in 2017.

Professor Diane Beauchemin
 

“I am working in a variety of areas of chemistry and I hope the work I am doing has impact on people’s health and safety and society in general,” says Dr. Beauchemin. “I’m also very focused on my students and how to help them in my lab so that they can contribute the science.”

One of her most unique areas of research is developing new and revolutionary tools to help Canadian law enforcement agencies solve crime.

One promising area of her ongoing research involves analyzing head hair to determine gender and ethnicity. She recently discovered a new method where the root of the hair isn’t needed for proper analysis. This work has caught the attention of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as it provides a new tool to use to solve new crimes and cold cases.

Dr. Beauchemin adds it may also be used to identify the gender of incomplete skeletons, even if only a small piece of head hair is available.

Along with that work, Dr. Beauchemin has developed a process to analyze paint scraping which could offer a new way to identify vehicles involved in hit and runs. And she is also working in her lab to identify solder left at crime scenes following a blast caused by an improvised explosive device. Her tool can determine the solder used and possibly even the type of soldering iron, which will help investigators identify the culprit if the solder and soldering iron indicated by her method match what was found in a suspect’s home. 

Diane Beauchemin demonstrates how she analyzes human hair.

Currently, Dr. Beauchemin is working on risk assessment of food safety. This includes chemicals in staple foods like rice, wheat, couscous, bread, and corn.

“Not only did my group develop a realistic method taking into account the bio-accessibility and the chemical forms of, in particular, arsenic and chromium in food but we are also looking at ways for consumers to protect themselves,” says Dr. Beauchemin. “For example, simply washing rice before cooking it can remove a large fraction of toxic arsenic.”  Her on-going work on how the cooking method may affect the levels of toxic components aims at identifying the safest way to prepare staple foods. 

For more information about the award visit the website.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Queen's Gazette.