Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Get to know forensic toxicologist Dr Jenn Pilgrim

This week, in celebration of Women’s Health Week, we’re featuring some of our impressive female researchers, like Dr Jennifer Pilgrim. Her passion for toxicology and forensics led her to a career with SPHPM’s Department of Forensic Medicine (DOFM) which is based within the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM), where she researches contemporary issues around drug use in Australia.

Q: What is your role at SPHPM?

I am a Research Fellow and Head of the Drug Harm Prevention Unit in SPHPM’s Department of Forensic Medicine.

Q: How long have you worked at Monash?

I’ve worked at Monash since 2011, but my association stems back to 2002 when I commenced my undergraduate studies in Science, followed by my Honours year in 2006, and finally my PhD in the Department of Forensic Medicine from 2007-11.

Q: Where did you work prior to starting at the University?

A: During my PhD, I worked as a Forensic Toxicologist at the VIFM. In this role I conducted analytical casework to determine the presence of alcohol and other drugs in Victorian coroners’ cases. Before this, I spent my undergraduate years in Myer’s gift-wrapping department (and Santa Land at Christmas time)!

Q: Tell us more about your background - how did you get here?

A: Forensics is something I’ve been interested in my whole life. I was reading crime novels back in primary school and always aspired to a career in forensic science. Unfortunately the pathway was not straightforward when I was finishing secondary school just before all of the shows like ‘Crime Scene Investigation’ and ‘NCIS’ started.

I entered into a Bachelor of Science Degree at Monash and majored in pharmacology. This enabled me to pursue an Honours degree through the Pharmacology Department, with a project based at the VIFM, with the Professor who would become my mentor for my PhD and beyond, Olaf Drummer. Olaf is Head of the Department of Forensic Medicine and a Forensic Toxicologist and we continue to work closely on my research. Upon finishing my PhD, I stepped away from the analytical laboratory-based side of forensic toxicology, and instead pursued a research program which incorporates forensic toxicology and public health epidemiology.

Q: What do you like best about your role with SPHPM?

A: The variety in work and the fascinating people I get to work with. My role allows me to research the contemporary issues around drug use in Australia and as drug trends change, so does my research. So there is always something new and interesting to investigate! I have travelled the world to work with a range of researchers who share a passion for forensic research. Their continued enthusiasm always keeps me motivated.

Why did you choose your current career path?

I’ve always been fascinated by forensics- in fact I think some of my primary school teachers were a little concerned with my choice of reading material! While I didn’t know a lot about Forensic Toxicology specifically, it was during my final year of undergraduate Pharmacology at Monash when I read Helen Garner’s book ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’ (which has recently been made into a movie) about an Australian woman who murdered her boyfriend with a lethal dose of heroin. Olaf Drummer was the expert toxicology witness for the case and was conveniently located in Melbourne, so I decided to meet with him to discuss a career in Forensic Toxicology. The rest is history!

Q: What project are you currently working on and what does it involve?

 I’m working on a few projects which include: several forensic epidemiology studies examining drug-caused deaths in certain Australian populations; multi-national projects with USA and European researchers looking at the pathology of emerging drugs of abuse; and the development of a reference database for toxic concentrations of drugs.

Most of my work involves the use of the National Coronial Information System (NCIS), an online database which holds information on coroners’ cases from Australia and New Zealand. I’m also involved with data linkage studies using the NCIS data and other Victorian databases, to obtain a wider picture of the factors surrounding drug use in Australia.

In your opinion, what are some of the greatest challenges facing public health?

Funding is an ongoing challenge for public health, as we need the research evidence to inform the decision making, but this requires ongoing funding for staff in particular. Funding is especially problematic for our niche research area, which falls somewhere between public health and forensic medicine.

Anything else of interest you want to tell us?

A: I’ve recently formed an exciting new collaboration with Dr Kate Chitty from the University of Sydney. We are currently investigating alcohol-related suicides around Australia and have brought on a new Research Assistant, Stephanie Ivezic, who is assisting with the data collection. Dr Chitty and I are part of a 2016 NHMRC Project Grant, so we’re hopeful for a positive outcome later this year.

Q: Choose three words that best describe SPHPM.

A: Innovative, progressive, optimistic.

Tell us something about yourself that your colleagues wouldn’t know.

A: I’m a real movie buff — I’ve seen a film at Cinema Nova in Carlton every Monday night for the last decade!

Q: What's your favourite local place near the Alfred/where you were based?

A: I’m based in Southbank but am often up at SPHPM for meetings. My local coffee shop near the Institute is Script Bar but I always like heading to Tall Timber for lunch when I’m up at the Alfred!

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