Thursday, 22 December 2011

E.T...phone home...

Just spotted this blog post about artificially deformed crania being misinterpreted as evidence of extra-terrestrial beings. I love the sheer ignorance of those alien-fanciers, and Daily Mail journalists! But also, I'm glad that this area of anthropology is beginning to get the attention it deserves. I've been working in this area for a while now, and am especially interested in the neurological effects of artificial or cultural cranial deformation. I presented on this topic at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in February this year, and I am currently preparing an article about it (with M. Richards), looking at how we can use ethnographic evidence and clinical observations in modern infants with craniosynostosis to draw conclusions about how it affects/ed the brain function of individuals with deformed crania.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Top Forensic Science Blogs

I was delighted to discover that my humble blog has made it to the Top Forensic Science Blogs website! http://www.itsgov.com/top-forensic-science-blogs.html I'm in some very distinguished company, so I'm thrilled. It certainly tops off the year nicely. Thanks!

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Off to Bonnie Scotland

This weekend I am 'hauling ass' over the border to Scotland. I'm attending and speaking at the Forensic Science Society's One Day Student Conference. This year, the title of the conference is 'Sex, Drugs and...', which somehow lead me to entitle my talk as 'Forensic Anthropology: As Rock 'n' Roll As It Sounds'. I leave you to decide whether it deserves a ? at the end or not. Also, I'm thinking Guns 'n' Roses-type rock 'n' roll, rather than Bill Haley and the Comets. So, this Saturday, I shall mostly be channelling Bon Jovi and The Rolling Stones, rather than my usual fare of Billy Joel and Adele.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Gods and Monsters

Last Saturday, I was watching Channel 4 with my hands over my eyes. Tony Robinson's new series called Gods and Monsters was on, and it was pretty scary stuff. The episode was about how medieval people viewed dead bodies, and how they interpreted their observations of what happened to them as evidence of them rising from their graves, walking around like zombies and terrorising villagers. They saw corpses bloated after what they assumed to be big meals, rather than a build up of gases in the intenstines, and heard bodies make noises when they shouldn't. The episode pictured some pretty horrific experiments, including Tony make the beautifully named 'cerebral pate', and recreate stab wounds seeping blood. But I'm not sqeamish about stuff like that...I was watching so gingerly because I knew I was about to see something even more off-putting - myself in a white Tyvex scene suit! I was filmed talking to Tony earlier in the year about how the earliest signs of decomposition could have been misinterpreted by villagers without a clear understanding of the natural processes of taphonomy, which has lead to a variety of myths and legends surrounding the Undead. Tony was charming, and I was lulled into a false sense of security, oblivious to my windswept hair and frankly ruddy complexion. And, well, I'm hoping that the camera, and the scene suit added at least 10 pounds..each. And I think I will be known for a while yet as the lady who talked about farting corpses to Baldrick! If you missed it, you can catch it here on 4OD.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Tweeting for tweet's sake?

I am relatively new to Twitter, but I must say that I am rapidly becoming addicted to it, and have noticed that, if I'm not careful, it can consume many minutes, if not hours, of my day. One thing I have been keeping an eye out for is the use of Twitter by forensic organisations or individuals for science communication, publication or other forensic-related banter. Today I have been alerted to Birmingham Police's FSI day, which can be followed by searching for @brumpolice or #fsi. There's also an article about it here. Now, firstly, let me say that I am a huge fan of science communication and getting more people interested in forensic science, and the idea of virtually following a real life CSI for a day is absolutely brilliant, and I wish I'd thought of it. But, I have some reservations...isn't constantly tweeting their latest movements going to distract the hard-working scientists from the task at hand? Is it not really dangerous (foolhardy even) to tweet exactly what you're doing and looking for at a live crime scene before you've had a chance to reflect on and analyse the evidence? Aren't you alerting potential criminals to your strengths and therefore weaknesses as investigators? Isn't there the chance for a defence lawyer worth his or her salt to get hold of your tweets and say 'you didn't tweet that you did this or that' and therefore you have been remiss? Are their tweets going to be admissable in court? I just think that they might have rushed into this idea for the publicity and outreach, and not thought very much about the potential consequences, that's all.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Breaking News! Breaking News!

Want to do a PhD in Forensic Anthropology?

Cranfield Forensic Institute is offering a funded PhD studentship now! Only the tuition and bench fees are funded, so you would have to pay for your own maintenance and upkeep, for 3 or 6 years, depending on whether you were a full-time or part-time student. It is only available for Home or EU students who have not done a previous post-graduate qualification. The subject is "Identification and Quantification of Gaseous Products of Decomposition In Relation to Cadaver Dog Efficiency", which will take place on the new Forensic Fieldwork Facility at Cranfield Forensic Institute.
Please email me at a.williams@cranfield.ac.uk for further details and to see if you are eligible to apply.

Get A Stupid Answer

I have had a great day today, standing out in the cold talking to Greg Foot (Science Junkie) for BBC 3's new offering, 'Ask A Stupid Question'. It was the culmination of two months of hard work, and I think it went quite well. Without giving too much away, I have been helping him answer the question "How long would it take my body to decompose?" - with much gory hilarity and retching! It should be on our small screens in the spring - something to look out for!

Friday, 4 November 2011

Defleshing hot pot

Sorry peeps, for the delay in updates. I have been quite busy, preparing for the new term and new modules. At the moment, I am thinking about my Further Forensic Anthropology: Identification module, which covers basic pathology and trauma. I'm currently planning an intersting activity involving stab marks on bone (Health and Safety nightmare!). And since we don't have a bone macerator at work, I'm thinking about using a slow cooker to do the defleshing in. Do you think my boyfriend will mind?

Friday, 14 October 2011

BAHID and BAFA

I'm feeling virtuous, and maybe a little hard-done-by today, as I am giving up my hard-earned weekend to attend the British Association of Human Identification conference in Manchester. I usually enjoy these events, but I just wish they weren't scheduled for the weekend. It's a chance to meet up with old friends and make new ones, in a slightly down-at-heel university conference centre. I will also be attending the second meeting of the British Association of Forensic Anthropology, where I am on the Academic Committee. I will also be attending a workshop on Disaster Victim Identification, which is set to be interesting and informative, but I'm not expecting a laugh a minute. Think of me, will you, stuck in a stuffy room with about 200 other anthropologists, while you're enjoying the crisp autumn sunshine this Sunday?

Monday, 3 October 2011

Anthro...what?

Today, I meet the new intake of MSc students for the first time, as I am about to give my first lecture of the year: Introduction to Anthropology. I really enjoy giving this lecture, as it is the least serious and most frivolous of the year...we talk quite a lot about chimpanzees, sex, gender issues, and inbreeding...it's a laugh! We also discuss concepts like 'what makes us human?', which always gets a few giggles and ruffles a few feathers.
Hopefully, it breaks the ice and gets them thinking.

Friday, 23 September 2011

The Body Flop

To be honest, I have been a little disappointed with the BBC's Body Farm so far. I was full of hope at the beginning, willing it to be fantastic, but now I just hope that the first two episodes are not representative of the rest of the series. The first episode was a bit farcical, really, with two bodies supposedly blasted into smithereens, and plastered all over the walls of a small high-rise flat. There was nothing left of the bodies except gloop, and luckily, a (quite large) piece of mandible that allowed them to work out that it was human remains and not, as it looked, blancmange on the walls. Surely an explosion that powerful would have blown out the windows and the door? Despite the attempt at plot twists, I'd worked out who'd dunnit it about a quarter of the way in. And again in Episode 2. This one was let down by the acting, as well as the science, especially in the scenes with the bodies - do none of them have a sense of smell? And who in their right mind, would place the mortuary gurneys on the other side of a plastic curtain from the kitchen?! They can't be that short of space. Another thing that got me was their use of unnessecarily high-tech equipment for no obvious reason. They managed to send a DNA sample over the airways. Oh, and by the way, it's a buccal swab for cheek epithelial cells, not a sample of what the guy had for breakfast!
On balance, I'm still looking forward to the next installments, but I think they're in dire need of a forensic anthropologist as an advisor...

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Body Farm

The new forensic offering from the BBC, The Body Farm, aired for the first time on Tuesday. It revolves around the forensic pathologist from Waking the Dead, Eve Lockhart, setting up a new facility for taphonomic research for forensic purposes. The facility is ostensibly like the Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville - more famously referred to as 'The Body Farm' - athough it appears to be set in decidely dingy premises. The original Body Farm is a huge, open space where forensic anthropology research is undertaken into all aspects of human decomposition. Luckily, there is a long waiting list of people prepared to donate their bodies to be buried, wrapped in duvets and binbags, hanged from trees, strapped into cars, or left in one of many other deposition methods, for the sake of advancing forensic science.
In the UK, this sort of facility exists, at the moment, only in fiction. It seems that our small, densely populated, opinionated nation is not ready for the ethical and moral onslaught of a human taphonomy facility. However, there are a couple of similar facilities that exist for the study of decomposition of animal analogues for humans - mainly pig cadavers. The Forensic Fieldwork Facility at Cranfield University is one of these two. The other is at UCLAN. The sites are invaluable for providing research opportunities into a wide range of conditions which can affect decomposition rate, and can therefore impact on accurate post-mortem interval and post-deposition interval estimation.
I eagerly await the next installment of the BBC series...what will happen next?

Monday, 5 September 2011

Ask A Stupid Question!

I am going to be helping out with a new science programme on BBC3 called Ask A Stupid Question. I will be helping them with their enquiries about how long it takes for a body to decompose. They will be doing some filming on my Forensic Fieldwork Facility this week...I will keep you updated.

The Crossing Places

I have just started reading Elly Griffith's The Crossing Places. So far, so very good. For someone who isn't a forensic archaeologist herself, her attention to detail and her factual accuracy is very good. Also, I find her heroine, Ruth Galloway, extremely easy to relate to! There's a work-related reason that I'm reading it actually, but I'm not going to tell you about that...yet.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Busman's holiday reading

I have just come back from a very lovely, relaxing holiday. Thanks to the general quiet and lack of other things to do but chill, I polished off two books. And what were my books of choice? Why, Kathy Reichs' latest offerings, of course! I read 206 Bones and Spider Bones - both classics in KR's inimitable style. 206 Bones had a poorly disguised agenda, which is actually quite close to my heart. In it, Tempe was plagued by office politics and people with few qualifications attempting to do her job. This is, unfortunately, rife in the world of Forensic Anthropology, where universities are churning out keen eager graduates, desperate to make a mark for themselves in the field. This leads to awful rivalry, back-stabbing and high levels of competition - more so than in almost any other scientific discipline, it seems. KR's suggestion, and it is very necessary, is that all people who want to be FAs need to be competency-tested. In the USA, there is a great system - the rigorous ABFA exams. In the UK, such tests don't yet exist. Hopefully, the newly formed BAFA will address this problem, but the road is long and bumpy, and fraught with controversy.
With hindsight, perhaps my books weren't the best choice for a holiday where thoughts about work were banned!

Friday, 5 August 2011

What is this bone?

We at the Centre for Forensic Anthropology Research at Cranfield University have just launched the What is this bone? service, where anyone can send us a good digital picture of any bone or bones they would like to be identified. We will try our best (as long as the quality of the photograph is good enough) to provide information about what type of bone it is, whether it is animal or human, juvenile or adult, archaeological or forensic, and any other information we can. Go on, test us!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

More pig experiments

I'm getting excited about a new round of decomposition experiments I am about to start. This time, we're doing a long-term study looking at how the conductivity of the soil changes with time after burial, to use the nutrient content of the soil and its conductivity to determine how long the body has been buried. I am just trying to organise the logistics at the moment, which includes strimming the Forensic Fieldwork Facility of all the weeds that have grown up! Don't worry, I will keep you informed...

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Girls storm the science scene

I've just been alerted to this article, which shows how well American school girls did at the first Google science fair. It just goes to show how the tables are turning, and women are making significant in-roads into the previously male-dominated sciences. It also adds support to my research that suggests that women are being introduced to science at a much earlier age than they used to be, and science 'sticks' with them throughout their school and university careers. Love it! Also, check out their Lego trophies!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Facebook for educational purposes

I have been interested for a while in using social networking as a way of enhancing the learning experience for my students, so after a bit of trial and error, I have set up 4 new pages on Facebook, for each of the modules I run and the Centre I head up. I hope that the students enrolled on each module will be able to access the pages, 'like' them and use them for asking questions of each other and the lecturers, discussing topics raised by the modules, and for posting useful links and information to each other.
Any ideas for 'jazzing' them up gratefully received! See what you think:
Centre for Forensic Anthropological Research
Fundamentals of Forensic Anthropology: Osteology
Mass Fatality Incidents
Forensic Craniofacial Identification

Friday, 8 July 2011

Wish me luck!

I am giving an important presentation today to the CDS Executive at Cranfield, describing how I have spent the £8,000 grant they kindly gave me to set up my Forensic Fieldwork Facility. I hope it goes well!

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Warning! Pig decomposition movie spoiler!

I am still compiling the time lapse camera footage from the pig decomposition experiments I have been doing on F3. Here's another 'taster' of the full length feature film that will soon be available. Look out for the seething maggot mass.

video

Also, look who has come to take advantage of the insects and maggots drawn to the carcass... it's the "c..i..rcle of l..i..fe" (cue Elton John music)...

Monday, 27 June 2011

Time lapse decomposition

I have managed to compile the first video from my new timelapse camera. I have been watching some pigs decompose on my Forensic Fieldwork Facility. One of my aims is to produce a video of the whole process from fresh to skeletonised remains, for teaching purposes. So far, I have taken about 930 still photographs of one of the pigs, taking one photo every half an hour in daylight, over the last 4 weeks. This is a video of the first day. I am not going to post the whole video here, as it will be a very large file, and as I want to use it for teaching purposes, and perhaps sell it one day, I don't want it available here for free!

But you can see the trailer...
video

Friday, 24 June 2011

Victory!

I cannot believe it! The science communication gods must have been smiling, because I WON the Forensic zone in I'm A Scientist! Here's the proof:


I am so chuffed! I have LOVED every second of taking part, and have 'met' and chatted to some amazing scientists (Sue Carney, Richard Case and Craig McKenzie) and some brilliant kids. The students have wowed me with their sometimes insightful, and sometimes a bit left-field questions.

I think my victory is simply down to what I'd call 'the gore factor' - I could trump the others with tales of disgusting bodies and maggots. That is all it was, I'm sure. The other scientists were amazing participants, and taught me a lot!

The prize is £500 to spend on a science communication project. I have already promised the students I've been chatting to (and especially the kids at Saltash Community School) that I will start a decomposition workshop for teenagers on my Forensic Fieldwork Facility. This is going to be no mean feat, but I'm really looking foward to it!

Thank you so much to all the students that voted for me! I am really touched.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Double eviction

Hooray! I survived the double eviction on I'm A Scientist today! I cannot believe it! So, now there are just two of us competing for the coveted £500 prize (to be used for a science communication project). It's me or Richard "Tricky" Case, and I'm putting money (literally) on him winning.

Whatever happens, I have LOVED being a part of IAS. I would definitely recommend it to colleagues, and to teachers I know to get their school kids excited about science. I have learned a lot over these two weeks, not only about what interests today's kids, but about evolution, nickel, chromium, intelligent design, and myself. You can't say fairer than that.

Night vision antics

This is one of the first night vision images from my new motion sensitive camera. It is currently trained on the latest porcine 'inhabitants' of my Forensic Fieldwork Facility. 


The dark blobs are the mesh tunnels under which the pigs are lying. We have used these to hinder the access to the carcasses by insects, but not stop it completely, as to do so would mean that all decomposition would be intrinsic (not what we want for this experiment). The mesh tunnels have also served to hide the carcasses from birds, as we have not been bothered by them at all. The larger contraption has been cleverly rigged out of an old dog crate (would you believe my dog is too big for the crate now), and has the timelapse camera on it. It houses a medium sized pig, undergoing as natural decomposition processes as we could allow (and still be DEFRA compliant).

Although I don't have many days of footage (the camera took a photo every time the wind moved a leaf - d'oh!), we can safely say that we haven't been troubled by scavengers at all, which is exactly what we wanted! Of course, the camera will come in very useful if we want to examine scavenger activity in future! And to see if anyone is trespassing!

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

For whom the bell tolls...

My hours on IAS are clearly numbered. By some evil twist today, in the second eviction, there was a DRAW in the Forensic zone! I have escaped only by the proverbial skin of my teeth. Someone else is clearly just as popular (or unpopular) as me! All the scientists in the Forensic zone now have to wait a whole nother 24 hours until we hear. Luckily, there is an episode of The Apprentice to keep me going, but it is going to be a long night!

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Eviction nerves

The first eviction in I'm A Scientist was a few moments ago...I can breathe again, as I have been spared...for the moment. Apparently, one of the other scientists, Shane, had to withdraw, due to unforeseen circumstances. This means the other four of us live to see another day, and another barrel-load of questions. However, one scientist is going to be evicted everyday at 3 o'clock from tomorrow until Friday, leaving one winner. If I am honest, I don't really think I stand a chance, against the likes of Sue and Richard, who are incredibly passionate about their respective forensic sciences. I didn't want to be the first out, so there's one small mercy.
I will keep you informed of progress...

Monday, 20 June 2011

On the set..

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited back to the set of BBC's Silent Witness, to help out with a storyline involving (I can't say too much) a body in a suitcase. A friend of mine, Home Office forensic pathologist Dr Ben Swift is a regular scientific advisor to the show, and last year, when there was a story about a bog body, he was kind enough to invite me along to watch and make comments. The impression I made can't have been too disastrous, as they invited me back last week. I got the chance to view the prosthetic body, and suggest tweaks to it. It was brilliantly made by Pauline, but wasn't wet enough, so we liberally applied water, baby oil and gravy browning!

I also got to 'instruct' the actors about how they would go about taking craniometric measurements of the skulls, and I offered them a set of spreading callipers, but luckily, they already had some! The director asked me how the body would be removed from the scene and the suitcase, and how the examinations would be carried out. I managed to give them some useful advice, but how I'd wished Ben was there to help! They seemed to genuinely appreciate the nuggets of information I gave them, which felt great. I can't wait to see it on the telly in the autumn, and I really hope they invite me back!

IAS Withdrawals!

It is 09.40 on Monday morning, and I am suffering from IAS withdrawal symptoms. The site is currently facing some technical difficulties and is temporarily down. I was supposed to have an online chat with students this morning, but I guess that it has been cancelled. I can't believe how genuinely disappointed I am! I have been finding the interaction with 13-18 year olds amazingly rewarding, and a constant challenge. They have asked me some great questions, like "what's your most disgusting case?" and "how can you separate people when their bones are all jumbled together?", or "how far do you believe in evolution?" which have made me examine all aspects of my job, my competence in explaining it, and my scientific preconceptions. The camaraderie with the other scientists has been lovely too, although I think the students are hoping for some friction...one asked "who would win in a fight, Sue or Anna?"! My answer was obvious.

If you fancy whiling away a few hours, go to the IAS website and check out the questions, and the answers - you might learn something! :)

Friday, 17 June 2011

I'm A Scientist

I am currently taking part in the Wellcome Trust funded initiative I'm a Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here!

It is an award-winning science outreach engagement activity, to allow children and young adults (aged 13-18) to talk to real-life scientists online. For the scientists, it's an X Factor-style competition, where students are the judges. Scientists and students talk online on this website, and the students ask questions about the scientists' work. For the students, it is a chance to learn about all different aspects of science, that scientists are real people too, and about themselves. The students get to vote for their favourite scientist in each zone, and the winner will win £500 towards a science communication project. Both students and scientists break down barriers, have fun and learn.

I am absolutely loving being a scientist on IAS! I am amazed at the range of questions asked, and the perceptiveness of many of the students. They are eager, excited, and enthusiastic to learn, and have made me think about my motivations for doing forensic anthropology, my ability to cope with its challenges, and the preconceived notions I have of science, and myself! It is thoroughly eye-opening!

Popped my blogging cherry!

Hello! This is my first ever blog, and I'm a bit nervous.
I have started this blog as a way of showing the world (maybe that's a little ambitious - there are probably only two of you reading this) what I get up to as a Forensic Anthropologist.

I am always asked about my job in hushed, expectant tones at parties and social gatherings, as though the subject is shrouded in a glamorous and exciting but somehow forbidden or macabre mystery. I have realised that there are quite a lot of misconceptions about the discipline of forensic anthropology out there, that require de-bunking. There are also a lot of interested people, who, it seems to me, are always gagging to know more. And if I had a pound for everytime someone told me "Oh, I would have loved to be a forensic scientist!", I would be a very rich woman indeed. So, here it is...my blog...my answer to all the open mouths and furtive questions I've received from lay people, from excited school kids (see next post), and from students. Enjoy!