Anticipated Start Date: August 2021
Dr. Stephanie Madon and Dr. Max Guyll, of Iowa State University, invite applications for a post-doctoral fellow to contribute to a federally funded research study that aims to quantify the validity of a commonly used forensic technique: the forensic analysis of fired cartridge cases. Applicants must hold a Ph.D. when they begin the position, have strong methodological skills, a demonstrated record of research experience in psychology and law, preferably with a background in social and/or cognitive psychology, and an intention to pursue a tenure-track academic position in the future. A forensic science background is not required. With satisfactory performance, the position may extend to a second year. The starting salary is $50,058. Interested applicants should (1) send a cover letter, vita, and the names of three letter writers to Dr. Madon at email@example.com and (2) complete a formal application. Letters of recommendation will be sought for short-listed applicants. Applications will be considered on a rolling basis with an anticipated start date of August 2021.
The validity of forensic science has recently come under heavy scrutiny. Invalid or improper forensic analysis is a leading cause of wrongful conviction in the United States. Moreover, in 2009, the National Research Council (NRC) released a report on the state of forensic science in which it identified significant deficits in knowledge about the validity of a broad range of forensic techniques. The conclusions expressed in the NRC report led to calls for rigorous scientific tests aimed at evaluating the validity of forensic techniques. In response to these calls, scientists from diverse disciplines turned their attention to the study of forensic science. The current research aims to quantify the validity of cartridge case comparisons under realistic, field-based conditions.
Many firearms automatically eject cartridge cases upon firing, enabling their recovery from crime scenes. The mechanical events associated with the firing pin, breech face, and ejector mechanism of firearms transmit toolmarks onto cartridge cases. Firearm examiners evaluate these toolmarks to determine whether a specific firearm (e.g., suspect’s firearm) was the source of a specific cartridge case (e.g., cartridge case recovered from a crime scene). Because decisions of source determination depend on visual inspection of cartridge cases, it is a subjective process that is susceptible to human judgment error. However, subjectivity should not be confused with invalidity. Even though the forensic analysis of fired cartridge cases is a subjective process, it can still be a valid technique if the rate of human judgment error is low under a variety of field-based conditions.
This research will test the validity of the forensic identification of fired cartridge cases under conditions that could introduce human judgment error in the field, including uncertainty in the interpretation of low quality forensic evidence and conventional practices in verification procedures. Because all forensic conclusions involve some degree of uncertainty, and crime laboratories apply conventional verification procedures to a wide-range of forensic techniques, this research has the potential to significantly improve understanding about the probative value of forensic science under conditions that are central to the analysis of forensic evidence.
This research will use a tightly controlled field experiment to address whether the rate at which forensic errors occur varies according to the quality of toolmarks produced by different firearm brands, and whether conventional peer-review procedures effectively catch forensic errors before they are communicated to law enforcement. These aims are grounded in psychological theory related to decision-making and cognitive processing and coincide with calls for rigorous scientific tests aimed at evaluating the validity of forensic techniques. The findings of this research have the potential to transform forensic science practices by emphasizing the importance of communicating the degree of uncertainty that characterizes forensic conclusions, and identifying potential threats to peer-review procedures.
The project will draw on the expertise of an interdisciplinary team of scientists. PI Madon is an experimental psychologist who has, for more than 20 years, investigated the effects of expectancies on human judgment and behavior in both laboratory and field settings. For the past seven years, she has applied her expertise in social psychological theory and methods to understand the causes of wrongful conviction. Co-PI Guyll is an experimental psychologist with expertise in experimental design and statistical analysis including repeated-measures designs, logistic regression, growth-curve analyses, and multi-level modeling. Over the past 20 years, he has applied his methodological and statistical skills to large and complex data sets to understand a variety of socially important issues including the effects of expectancies and social influence processes, and most recently the causes of wrongful conviction. Co-PI Costabile is an experimental psychologist who has extensive experience using cognitive methodologies to understand information processing and human judgment. Her primary research area examines how people's cognitive mindset influences their perception and interpretation of ambiguous stimuli within a variety of contexts, including legal settings. Co-PI Chumbley is a metallurgist by training with expertise in the characterization of materials. A core focus of his research is in forensics. He has a long history of working with current and former forensic examiners as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the National Institute of Justice to develop objective systems for toolmark analysis. Because of his expertise, he served as a member of the National Academy of Sciences committee on Ballistic Imaging. Co-PI Morris is a statistician whose research focus is in complex experimental design. He has participated in National Institute of Justice and Department of Defense funded forensic research projects for more than 15 years, focusing on both the development of algorithmic approaches to toolmark identification and the assessment of examiner error rates. He presently serves on the National Institute of Standards and Technology OSAC Firearms and Toolmarks Subcommittee. Finally, the Iowa Department of Public Safety in conjunction with the Division of Criminal Investigation Firearm and Toolmark Division, Iowa State University's Department of Public Safety, and a consultant with 27 years’ experience working as a state forensic examiner will provide specialized technical expertise and resources that will facilitate and enhance the research.
Post-Doctoral Mentoring Plan
Consistent with the National Academy of Sciences (2000) report on the post-doctoral experience, the mentoring plan will follow an apprenticeship model. The apprenticeship model that the research team has developed will foster the post-doctoral fellow's career advancement by providing broad training in five core areas of competency: (1) conceptual knowledge, (2) research methodology, (3) written and oral communication, (4) professionalism, and (5) research ethics.
Conceptual Knowledge: Weekly scheduled meetings with PI Madon and Co-PI Guyll will promote active discussion of published research that will enable the post-doctoral fellow to acquire knowledge within the specialized area of forensic science and to connect that knowledge to the general literatures in psychology and law and social psychology. These meetings will also provide oversight of research protocol related to the funded project.
Research Methodology: The post-doctoral fellow will participate in the psychology and law research group, which consists of five core faculty plus their graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. Because the group cross-cuts the social and cognitive graduate program areas, the post-doctoral fellow will be exposed to a wide-range of research methodologies related to the group's interests in forensics, confessions, police interrogation, investigative interviewing, deception detection, and false memories. The psychology and law group regularly invites top scholars to hold colloquia that will expose the post-doctoral fellow to cutting-edge research in the discipline. The post-doctoral fellow will also participate in the research seminar coordinated by the social psychology program. The seminar invites outside speakers to campus and holds informal research presentations on a bi-weekly basis. The post-doctoral fellow will further develop her or his research methodology by substantively contributing to data analysis related to the funded project, thus gaining a greater appreciation of the way that research methods intersect with hypothesis testing.
Written and Oral Communication: To enhance the post-doctoral fellow's written communication skills, she or he will be encouraged to take the lead role on manuscripts based on the funded project. As lead author, she or he will perform the data analysis, develop conceptual frameworks, draft the manuscript, and write response letters. To enhance the post-doctoral fellow's oral communication skills, she or he will be encouraged to present research at the social psychology seminar, the American Psychology-Law Society's annual meeting, and to give one or two guest lectures in psychology courses.
Professionalism: To prepare the post-doctoral fellow for an academic position, she or he will engage in a variety of professional activities. These will include interfacing with our partnering agencies and supervising graduate and undergraduate students funded by the project. The post-doctoral fellow will also take part in professional development programs in teaching and grantsmanship that are offered through Iowa State University's Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching and the Provost's Office.
Research Ethics: The post-doctoral fellow will participate in Iowa State University's Responsible Conduct of Research Training program, and will be encouraged to attend the university's Institutional Review Board meetings for IRB applications submitted by our laboratory. She or he will also help to ensure that undergraduate research assistants are engaging in proper research conduct.