Connecting serial killers and disease with Mark Stevenson

A technique designed to help criminologists catch serial killers is being used by scientists to locate sources of disease, control pests and study animal behaviour. But what, exactly is the connection between them? Mark Stevenson, a PhD researcher at Queen Mary, University of London tell us all…

So, serial killers and animal behaviour – what’s the connection?
Most people are surprised by what I study. These two areas seem very different, but they have a range of things in common. The basic theory is all about finding the sources of things. When we have information on a crime, the sighting of an endangered species or a disease case we are only seeing a small part of the picture. We observe only small samples from the underlying movement pattern. Using these samples we can work out where the home of killer might be in just the same way as we can find the lair of a tiger or the puddle of water that a malaria carrying mosquito lives in. The only major difference is the particular pattern of movement. Mosquitoes tend not to travel quite the same as serial killers; for one thing mosquitoes tend not to care about going along roads!

Why did you decide to use the technique to study biological processes?
The work began just before my PhD, my supervisor Steve Le Comber read about the technique in the New Scientist, he called up Kim Rossmo the criminologist responsible for developing the method in criminology and the collaboration was borne. My background was ecology and fisheries science. When I saw the PhD advertised I jumped at it straight away! We expected the technique to work, but were amazed by just how well and in so many novel situations.

How important has collaboration between criminologists and biologists been in the development of GP?
The collaboration is important and on-going. The two disciplines have very different histories and the approaches in each field can be wildly different at times. Continuing to work with Kim Rossmo has really helped us look at problems from very different perspectives. When you get a genuine and spontaneous collaboration there is just so much that both parties can benefit.

What other areas of science do you think this could be applied to?
The basic premise is a really important and far reaching one. In Biology, conservation science and marine protected areas are two potential applications. We could track the locations of tigers or bears desensitized to humans based on sightings, find them and relocate them before they come into conflict with people. In marine science, we could determine if marine protected areas are giving rise to fish and shellfish populations outside of their area. There are also possibilities for its use in the social sciences, from working out where to place chain shops, to human dispersal and demography.

Where next for your studies?
I am writing a lot of grant applications at the moment! I intend to continue to work with GP. I think the application to infectious disease is the most pressing. We now have data from a number of important diseases, TB, legionaries and SARS. GP has the potential to be more than a research tool, I want doctors to be able to enter the data on a tablet device, then for it be uploaded and analysed right away. If we can do this it would mean from the very start of a disease outbreak the control could be accurately targeted and we could save many more lives. I’m also keen to keep close to the ecology and conservation roots so I would love my hands on the data about U.K. ash dieback!

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