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!

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Smelling death at the Royal Institution

Yesterday, I fulfilled a lifetime ambition of presenting at the Faraday Lecture theatre at the Royal Institution in London. This venue has been made famous as the location for the annual Ri Christmas Lectures, which have been given in previous years by eminent scientists such as Professor Marcus du Sautoy, Professor Brian Cox and (my favourite) Professor Richard Dawkins. You can watch their lectures here.

Yesterday was the day of the On the Front Line Conference, spectacularly organised by the wonderful Forensic Outreach, a company that specialises in inspiring young people to take an interest in forensic science and pursue careers in forensic science. This was open to school leavers, interested lay people, crime writers and others keen to find out more about diverse subjects within forensic science such as ballistics and gun shot residue, the use of jewellery in forensic identification, the psychology behind lone terrorists, and the transfer of DNA.

I was there to present the research the Forensic Anthropology Group at Huddersfield have been doing on identifying the gases given off by bodies as they decompose, more catchily known as the 'Scent of Death'. In order to create an interactive element to the presentation, I spent (aided by Michaela Reagan from UCL) 3 hours before the talk spraying 'perfume' sticks with diluted chemicals isolated from the decomposition process. Audience members got to sniff the sticks from zip lock bags at opportune moments during the talk.

This is from the Forensic Outreach instagram page, showing me preparing the sticks before the talk
My presentation was just before lunch. Hopefully the slides and smells didn't put anyone off their food! I discussed the different stages of decomposition, and described the gases recovered at each stage. Of course, the audience couldn't smell the whole 'bouquet' of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as about 400 have been identified from human decomposition and about 800 from animal decomposition - that would have taken too long!

The view from up in the 'Gods' of the Faraday Lecture Theatre
Starting off the smelling process!

Grappling with the microphone
It was a pity that the time did not allow me to talk about our work using the VOCs we've identified to help the training of 'cadaver dogs', but I think just the smelling might have been enough!
I was very grateful to Forensic Outreach for inviting me to present in this iconic venue, and I hope that one day, I might be doing the Christmas lectures there!

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Viva Mexico!

I have had a very hectic summer, hence the lack of posts! I'm sorry.

Earlier in the year, I joined colleagues from Bangor University and Reading University in applying for a Newton Fund Researcher Links grant from the British Council to deliver a workshop in Mexico in September aimed at fostering Anglo-Mexican collaborations. In late August, we heard that the application had been successful, and suddenly, we were off to sunny Mexico!

The workshop was about Forensic Taphonomy, combined with the (I think) relatively unknown discipline of Forensic Acarology. What is forensic acarology? You'd not be the only one asking. Acarology is the science of microscopic mites and macroscopic mites including ticks. Every single person is home to millions of mites - they live in the pores of our skin, in our hair, including our eyelashes, eyebrows and pubes. They live in our houses, share our beds and bathrooms.

Image result for dust mites actual size

Apparently the populations of mites found are specific to different parts of the house - there will be different species living on windowsills to the rest of the room, or on your pillow or in the middle of the bed. About  10 million house dust mites (HDMs) live in the average bed.

Not surprisingly, given their diversity and specificity to certain conditions, mites can be really useful in forensic situations. Mites, like flies, are quick to colonise a corpse, but they arrive on the bodies of the flies, jump off onto the cadaver and lie in wait to predate on the newly hatched fly larvae. They reproduce more quickly than flies, so can in some instances, be more accurate for estimating time since death. Their specificity means that they can be used in a similar way to other trace evidence, such as soil, diatoms or pollen, to determine where a suspect has been, if a body has been moved, or to link a suspect to a victim or scene. However, given their tiny size and the difficulties there are in identifying them, they have not taken off as a forensic diagnostic tool. More information about the use of mites in a forensic context can be found here.

The workshop focused on introducing Mexican police, criminologists, acarologists, entomologists and anthropologists to taphonomy, decomposition in different environments, search and location techniques, and exploring the potential for cadaver dog training and creating a human taphonomy facility (otherwise known as a 'body farm') to Mexico. As you can imagine, I was rather excited about this possibility! I ran an exercise where the delegates had to plan the structure of a potential research facility, taking into consideration different requirements such as storage, security, lab spaces etc.

Delegates engaged in the exercise to design an HTF

One of the designs
There are different ethical constraints and restrictions in Mexico compared to the UK, but there is a lot of interest among the right people for getting an HTF, as they can see the obvious benefits to forensic science.

During the week, we also undertook a practical exercise where we extracted soil mites from a site where a body (pig carcass) had been deposited.

Caroline collecting soil samples from the deposition site
Collecting the mites from the soil samples
There was a big difference between the soil mites collected from control samples 2m away from the carcass deposition site and those in the soil underneath where the body had been lying. Identification of the mites showed us that they were typical corpse-colonising species.

All our hard work was rewarded with some down time. We happened to be there during the Mexican Independence Day celebrations. There were fireworks, parades in the streets, amazing food and music. Here is a couple dressed in traditional clothes.

And of course, when you're in Mexico, you should do as the Mexicans do...

This is Mezcal, a spirit like Tequila, complete with 'worms' (butterfly larvae/caterpillars)
Needless to say, we had a fantastic time. I am confident that there is plenty of scope for research collaborations with delegates and the Universidad Autonoma de Queretaro, where the workshop was held, and, hopefully more academic and cultural exchanges in the future!

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Locard's Lab

I'm very pleased to have been interviewed by Locard's Lab, as part of their initiative to interview a lot of scientists from all different forensic disciplines and from different stages of their career. My interview can be found here. I think Locard's Lab is doing a sterling job bringing together interesting news about forensic research. Keep it up!