THE bones can crumble in her hands. So old, so fragile, unearthed from battlefields in Europe and the Asia Pacific. They are all that remain of unknown soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in war and Felicia Bardan feels compelled to solve the mystery of the bones; to work with new DNA technologies to try to put a name to the war dead, to gift them a proper burial and importantly, to provide families with closure.
Felicia is a former Taree High School student who is leading a University of Adelaide project to create a DNA database that may enable the identification of war dead; it is an ambitious project, it is the first of its kind in Australia and it requires the Australian community to act to create the database.
Felicia intends for the database to assist staff in the Unrecovered War Casualties - Army (UWC-A) unit to identify more than 25,000 unaccounted Australian servicemen. UWC-A is endorsing the project, and urging the community to assist it to succeed.
"This is a very important project. Not a lot of people think about all of the Australian soldiers that have never been found and never been identified - but I do - I am mindful that their families do not have closure," Felicia said.
"To be able to bring back one person, to make a family happy or to give closure, that would be a cherry on top of the cupcake. That is it, to be able to give these families closure; to give these soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country a proper commemoration."
Felicia recently returned to the Manning Valley to visit her parents, Lucy and Petre Bardan of Mitchells Island, and she is hoping her home community will rally to contribute their DNA to the database.
The catalyst for the genesis of this project is the reality that traditional forensic DNA tests do not work on the bones, according to Felicia, who completed a Bachelor of Forensic Science with Honours at Griffith University in Brisbane.
"When remains are recovered from across the Asia Pacific and Europe, they've been there for a long time so they are severely degraded and most often the bones crumble in your hands," Felicia explained.
"When that happens, the DNA within the bones also starts to degrade. So normal, traditional forensic DNA tests don't work. So we have to look for other DNA tests to get answers to the questions such as who are they, where are they from and what country do we send the bones to for a proper burial?
"We look for specialised markers in DNA for a range of information such as what they might have looked like, what ancestry they may have, what part of the world they originated from. My focus is to look at the DNA within the bones so that we can send them back to the right country.
"In order to be able to correctly say that a set of remains is Australian or Japanese or European, you need to have some idea of what ancestries were present in the Australian population in World War II.
"So we need people who represent the Australian population before World War II to contribute to our DNA database so that we can see the levels of the different ancestries.
"The best case scenario would be if we could get a DNA sample from every Australian born before 1945 to give us a picture of the population.
"However, it's not just people who were born and resided in Australia before 1945 that we want, direct descendants of those people are still suitable for our purpose.
"The DNA markers that infer ancestry remain unchanged when passed down through the mother and father. So we can get the DNA from someone's grandchild and they will have the same ancestral DNA as their grandparents."
Felicia said the choice to contribute to the DNA database would not cost anything, and stressed that it would not be a difficult process.
"It will take less than 10 minutes. Everything will be sent to you, including a reply paid envelope. All we need is for people to swab the inside of the mouth to provide the DNA sample," she explained.
"The DNA sample will only be examined for the markers that infer ancestry and then it will be destroyed. Each DNA sample will only be identified by barcode when examined in the laboratory."
Felicia said the project had also secured the approval of the University of Adelaide Human Research Ethics Committee.
Felicia is excited about the potential of the project and commits an enormous amount of time to its development in the laboratory.
"My lab is my home in Adelaide," she laughs. "But I love to come home to Mitchells Island as it allows me to escape the pressures of my scientific, nerdy life.
"When you are younger you don't really appreciate it, but when you come back to the Manning Valley you realise why the place is so special."
To participate in the project contact Associate Professor Jeremy Austin at the University of Adelaide on 08 8313 4557 or firstname.lastname@example.org