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...

Friday, 24 June 2011


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 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 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!