Friday, 27 March 2020

Contingency planning for Coronavirus: article

Well, I don’t know about you, but I have never experienced this type of situation before. Government restrictions, national lock-down, police outside ready to stop you if you go is like something out of a dystopian movie. All the worry about vulnerable family members and friends, elderly neighbours, the state of the NHS, just adds to the general feeling of disquiet. 

Last year, my colleague Dr Julia Meaton and I supervised MSc research by Helen-Marie Kruger about the preparedness of local authorities for dealing with a flu pandemic. Of course, since then, the coronavirus situation has developed, and suddenly, our research takes on a new morbid significance. We modeled what would happen with a 50% clinical attack rate and a 1% and 2.5% death rate. Currently, the clinical attack rate of COVID-19 is thought to be about 60-80% and the mortality rate hovers around 1%.

We conducted interviews with employees of a Local Authority, including a senior emergency planning manager, a mortuary manager, a registrar and a bereavement services manager, and we modeled death rates using the UK Government Cabinet Office’s National Planning Assumptions Assessment Tool. In our paper, available here, we discuss how many excess deaths there would be over  15 week period, and as the pandemic reaches its peak, and the strain that would put on the funeral, crematoria and bereavement services. Our findings suggest that although business continuity plans are in place, it is highly likely that these services will be overwhelmed, even in the case of the lower mortality rate.

If you have questions about the paper or our research, please contact me or Dr Meaton.

If you can, please stay indoors to stop the spread of the virus and help our NHS save lives.
Thank you to all the fantastic NHS staff working so hard at this difficult time. 

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Copyright infringement!

It has come to my attention that a website called is using my name, credentials and images, and claiming to have been created by me. It has nothing to do with me and was not created by me. The gallery is full of pictures of me, the website is using others' images without permission, and is pretending to be associated with me. I have sent them a 'cease and desist' email, and contacted the hosting company and the domain registrar to ask them to take it down. I first noticed it in April 2019, and asked them to remove it then - it was for a short time, but it is now back up. I just wanted to make it public that this site has nothing to do with me! If you have any idea who might be involved with it, or behind the website, and know how to get in touch with them, please let me know.

Sunday, 12 January 2020


Happy 2020 to all my readers! I am so sorry for the radio silence that has lasted over a year!
I have some exciting news to tell you about. I am very pleased to be involved in a artistic collaboration, funded by the British Arts Council, called Thanatos. It is a collaboration between the very talented artist Eric Fong, and innovative perfumer Euan McCall. Thanatos is a multi-sensory installation which builds on some of the research into the #scentofdeath that I have been involved in. A few years ago, my colleague Gareth Parkes and I supervised PhD research by Lorna Irish, looking into the gases (or volatile organic compounds) that are given off as a body decomposes, to see if the changes in those gases could be used to determine post-mortem interval, and/or could be used to more specifically train Victim Remains detection dogs. We published an article about our research in Science and Justice last year.

Eric Fong - Thanatos

The art installation is focused on the presentation of the perfume Thanatos, which is inspired by this research and the sights and smells of human decomposition. The exhibition is travelling around the country, and over the next few months, will be in Leicester at the Phoenix Cinema and Arts Centre, at the Old Operating Theatre in London, and at Teesside University. There will be lectures, panel discussions and workshops associated with the installation. I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Science at the House of Lords

Just before Christmas, I was excited to get an invitation to an afternoon tea at the House of Lords. This was a special invitation-only event to celebrate 30 years of Media Fellowships. These are competitive  fellowships where scientists get to immerse themselves in the fast-paced and often cut-throat world of journalism. They are organised by the British Science Association. Every year, the BSA supports up to ten scientists at different stages of their careers to spend two to six weeks working full time in a media outlet such as The Guardian, Nature, the BBC (either TV or Radio) or New Scientist. They are mentored by journalists and editors at the media outlet, and encouraged to create media outputs (articles, programmes, blog posts, online posts etc) about a wide variety of science topics. The aim is to break down barriers between scientists and the press or media, and to encourage scientists to readily talk and write about their science, as the more science can be shared with the public, the better. The scheme has been running since 1987, and has led to thousands of creative and engaging scientific outputs, whether broadcast, in print or online.

As you may know, I was lucky enough to win one of these Media Fellowships in 2014, and I spent an enlightening month working for New Scientist. During my time there, I learned how to write pithy and exciting articles, and interviewed other scientists about their work. It was extremely interesting, especially to break out of my sometimes insular discipline and learn about many other areas of science. I wrote about toxic algal blooms in America, the glue used on the Terracotta Army, and how cold potatoes can be used to prevent cancer. I also got to write a double page spread about my own area of research, although it concentrated on the work of other scientists in the discipline: Death: the great bacterial takeover. You can read more about my experience from my posts at the time here and here. I would be lying if I didn't say the experience was tough, but it was immensely rewarding, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would recommend it to anyone.

And so, one of the unexpected perks of the Fellowship, was a rather fancy afternoon tea at the House of Lords. It was a classy occasion, made even better by the chance to meet up again with other Fellows from my cohort - Aditee Mitra in particular - and to meet Fellows from other years and swap experiences and anecdotes. We also heard from Lord David Willetts, and previous and current Media Fellows Ruth McKernan, Helen Czerski, and Rebecca Dewey, who each gave impassioned speeches about how the media should engage with scientists and vice versa. 

Even if there hadn't been the opportunity to go to the House of Lords (which has a lovely shop, by the way), I would wholeheartedly recommend applying for a Media Fellowship, if you're a scientist with even a slight interest in public engagement or science communication. The experience you'll get cannot be gained in academia, or anywhere else for that matter, and is invaluable for improving all types of writing, whether it be in scientific journals, blogs or grant applications. 

Aditee and me outside the House of Lords 

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Twenty First Century Women

Last month I was interviewed by Cambridge 105 Radio for their show about Twenty First Century Women. They interviewed my sister, Naomi Davies about her genealogy business and watercolour paintings and then me about the campaign to establish a Human Taphonomy Facility (or 'Body Farm') in the UK. If you're interested, you can hear the podcast here.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Dental Arcade Game at Eureka!

Over the last couple of years, I have been running a citizen science project called the Dental Arcade Game (see this blog post).
The project aims to improve the reference data used by Forensic Anthropologists to estimate the age of unknown remains (especially children) from dental eruption. Dental eruption (i.e. when teeth poke out through the gums) happens at roughly predictable times during childhood. However, the reference data routinely used by Forensic Anthropologists is outdated and very population-specific, and needs to more data from more people. So, we need a way of getting lots and lots of dental eruption data from people of known ages. This is where citizen science and the magic of social media comes in!

We need people (especially children) to participate in our short survey, where they give their age and tell us which teeth they have in their mouths and which have fallen out. The survey has received ethical approval from the University of Huddersfield Research Ethics and Integrity Committee, and is completely anonymous. It only takes 10 minutes, and you can do it online. You don't need any special equipment, just a friend to look at your mouth, or a mirror to look at your own mouth. You can also look at the Dental Arcade Game website, where there are quizzes and arcade-type games to play, such as Mouth Invaders and Plaque-Man. It also includes more information about Forensic Anthropology and how you can get involved. You can also follow the project on Twitter @Dental_Arcade.

This summer, we have been very lucky to be invited to share our research at the Eureka! National Children's Museum in Halifax. This is a really vibrant, exciting museum that caters for children of all ages, with super interactive exhibits about the body, the weather, digital science and much much more. Our Dental Arcade Game is on in the All About Me zone, which allows children to explore digestion, senses, bones, babies and food. Our activity fits in very well, as it encourages children to think about their teeth, and give us valuable data by showing us which ones have erupted and which ones are loose. So far, we have had very good feedback and the visitors have loved getting involved.

We are next at the Eureka! Museum on the 1st and 2nd of June and the 29th and 30th June. Come along for a fantastic day out!

We will also be having a stall and activity centre at the Festival of Childhood at Huddersfield University on the 22nd and 23rd June. Come along and get involved in our citizen science project!

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend the Skeletons, Stories and Social Bodies conference held at the University of Southampton. It was a little different to the conferences I normally attend, as instead of being solely focussed on forensic science, it had an intriguing mix of funerary archaeology, osteology, social commentary, debates about the notion of death and much more. It was a really refreshing, eclectic mix of attitudes toward death and dying. Also, it was very well organised, by Sarah Schwarz.

I gave a (rushed) talk on 'The Case for a 'Body Farm' in the UK', detailing the history of Human Taphonomy Facilities across the world, and showing what they have taught us about human decomposition in different environments. I also put forward arguments for and against the opening of a Human Taphonomy Facility (HTF) in the UK. I asked all the people attending the conference to go to @HTF4UK and fill in our survey asking about their opinion on whether there should be an HTF in the UK. If you have a spare ten minutes, please fill in our survey here. We would really appreciate your opinion. If you're not sure what HTFs are and what goes on in one, have a look here.

On the Sunday, I gave a workshop on 'The Scent of Death', where I introduced the delegates to the some of the different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that we have identified from our work looking at the gaseous products of decomposition. We have identified different VOCs and used them to test Victim Remains Detection (VRD) dogs in the UK to see if they indicated on any of the individual chemicals (results to be published soon). The delegates got to smell some of the (non-toxic) VOCs, match them with different stages of decomposition, and describe them in their own words - this turned out to be very amusing! Some of the smells were described as "strong cheese, but that's OK, I like strong cheese", "the smell of bloodhounds", "vintage shops", "old people's homes", and "baby sick". Not everybody enjoyed it. One person said it was the worst smell she had ever encountered. For me, it's just part of my job!