From the 12th to the 14th of June this year, we’ll be hosting the Scientific Meeting of the Society of Hair Testing (SoHT) in Cardiff. In the build-up to that event, we’ll run a series of interviews with keynote speakers like Markus Baumgartner, forensic toxicologist and head of the Centre of Forensic Hair Analytics at the University of Zurich’s Institute of Forensic Medicine.
In his day job, Markus pioneers new analytical methods for detecting drugs and other biomarkers in hair and nails. He’s also a long-term member of the SoHT, sitting on the board since 2012 and currently serving as president, a position he’s held since 2014.
We caught up with Markus to talk about his keynote, his work with the SoHT and his future plans.
Cansford Labs: You’ve been involved with SoHT for a long time. What changes have you seen in that time? Have the aims of the Society changed at all?
Markus Baumgartner: SoHT was founded in 1995 by a group of enthusiasts, mostly working in European institutions, but by 2012 we were organising conferences outside Europe - the first one in Toronto. We had another in São Paulo in 2015, and last year we held a joint event in Brisbane with TIAFT (The International Association of Forensic Toxicologists).
These events bring us worldwide recognition, and universal visibility for the hair testing profession. Given the serious applications of hair testing - workplace drug testing, child custody cases, drug abuse cases - it’s important that our recommendations and guidelines for good practice are recognised by as many operators as possible.
SoHT also offers annual proficiency tests - we send the same drug users’ hair samples to laboratories for blind testing, assess the results independently, and publish the results to show the performance of all laboratories. The number of participants is increasing every year, which we attribute to the large number of analytes we test, and the authentic hair samples.
My role, as president, is to bring and hold together all these activities, and keep the membership informed.
CL: The 22nd Scientific Meeting of SoHT is coming up in June. What can attendees expect - and what are you most looking forward to?
MB: I’m expecting work on single hair analysis, new analytes, and new applications for testing. Personally, I’m looking forward to meeting friends and colleagues; to stimulating discussions with experts from my field and others.
CL: Can you tell us a little about your keynote?
MB: It’s about the caution we need to employ in interpreting the results of hair tests. As experts we have to deal with facts, experimental findings, interpretation guidelines, cut-off values, alleged arguments and so on. I’ll try to illuminate some of these points, based on literature, data, and my own findings.
CL: What first sparked your passion and drew you into the world of hair testing?
MB: Hair testing, and the forensic interpretation of results, demand a multi-factorial approach. You have a very low amount of hair matrix and low analyte concentrations to work with, so your experimental settings have to be very sophisticated, and you need to look for the most modern techniques available. That diversity of approaches you need to understand is fascinating to me, and has been since my PhD studies - in a completely different field.
CL: What’s next? What are you working on?
MB: A few things. Endogenous substances detectable in hair. A greater understanding of external contamination, and how to deal with it. The most critical problem for me is finding time to do research. However, our Centre of Forensic Hair Analytics is a laboratory for forensic and clinical services, with thousands of cases a year. A heavy caseload certainly, but also thousands of chances to detect new phenomena which might be the starting line for new insights or studies.
We’d like to thank Markus for answering our questions - and we’re looking forward to his keynote speech at the Scientific Meeting in June. If you’re as intrigued as we are, download a registration form for the event here.