Tuesday 4 December 2012

Alien Investigations

Some of you may have watched 'Alien Investigations' on Channel 4 this week. I gather from the Twitter #alieninvestigations comments that it got a bit of a mixed response, ranging from 'wow - this is very scary - do aliens walk among us?' to 'wow, this is scary - some people believe in aliens', and other, less printable comments.

Now, I don't want to alienate ('scuse the pun) any of my readers, but my position on extra-terrestrial life is pretty clear. While I think it is extremely unlikely that in the whole universe of billions of galaxies and solar systems and stars there are no other planets in the 'Goldilocks' zone capable of sustaining life (probably bacterial or single-celled, but I guess there is the potential for something more complex), I am pretty sure that no 'little green men' (or similar) have ever reached our planet.

When presented with pictures of the Cusco remains and asked for my opinion, my task was relatively easy. As an anthropologist with a research interest in artificially deformed skulls, I have seen more than my fair share of skulls of this shape (and others - they can be super flattened and brachiocephalic), and could instantly recognise it as the skull (and torso) of a human child who had undergone the relatively common cultural practice of artificial cranial deformation. As I mentioned in my previous post (ET..phone home), there is a plausible, rational explanation for the unusual appearance of human skulls such as the one found at Cusco. This great blog (Bones Don't Lie) goes into lots more detail about the techniques used and its cultural background. So, for me, science triumphs again.

It was great to see how my 'science bit' fitted into the rest of the programme, and how much debate and controversy it stimulated on Facebook and Twitter for example. I'm grateful to the film-makers for allowing me take part in such a controversial and gripping programme!

Sunday 4 November 2012

What's that smell?

Have just returned from a frankly freezing weekend near Camberley, where I spent most of the time standing outside in the cold, next to a lake. Half of you may be thinking 'Sounds like fun', and half may wonder 'What on earth possessed you?' Well, I was at an exclusive seminar workshop about search and detection dogs, specifically interested in human remains detection (HRD) dogs (sometimes referred to charmingly as 'cadaver dogs'). The whole weekend was absolutely fascinating, and really good fun! It was run by the International Rescue Training Centre Wales, which specialises in training mountain rescue dogs (for living people), and detection dogs for human remains on land and in bodies of water. We were treated to live demonstrations of protection dogs attacking violent intruders, explosive detection dogs, and dogs scenting human anologue (pig) remains on land and over water.
Decomposed piglet remains about to be hidden under water as a target for the human remains detection dog to find.
The human remains detection dog, handler and search team starting their search for submerged remains.

My new PhD student has just started research, using the Forensic Fieldwork Facility, into identifying and quanitifying the gaseous products of decomposition, for comparison with HRD dog efficiency. This research will add much needed scientific rigour to the process of HRD dog training and assessment, in the UK and hopefully abroad. If you are interested in finding out more, please drop me a line. We're both looking forward to the next seminar...but I will definitely wear my thermals next time!

Thursday 25 October 2012

Prehistoric Autopsy

I was very excited to see the trailer for Prehistoric Autopsy a few weeks ago, and couldn't wait for the first episode on Monday. In many ways, I got what I was expecting - the same TV cliches that characterise many science or forensic programmes - the blue back lighting, the transparent white board, the top down shots and the large plasma screens showing fantastic reconstructions. But, overall, I was very pleasantly surprised by the format and the informative content. I have watched several of Alice Roberts' shows in the past, and liked them (I hasten to add), but in this one, I thought she was at her best - she seemed relaxed and enthusiastic, and a little less wooden than she has been before. George McGavin is likeable too - I tend to think of him as 'the new' David Bellamy. The idea of concentrating on three of the 'pop stars' or 'icons' of our evolutionary past was a fun twist on the ordinary format of starting at the beginning and working our way up to the present. It was also fast-moving enough to keep up interest. Of course, I was on the look out for slip-ups or factual inaccuracies (I can't help it); and although there were a few instances where clear conjecture or speculation was given one minute, and taken as read in the next sentence; it was generally a really good synopsis of current research into evolutionary anatomy, with some grand old chestnuts and a few new advances thrown in for good measure. And the silicon reconstructions of the hominids were very impressive. I loved the confident, fierce look in Lucy's eyes! Anyway, if you haven't seen all the episodes, I'd encourage you to hunt them out on iPlayer. Hopefully more programmes like this will make it onto the BBC's radar, and bring palaeoanthropology to our living rooms more often.

Friday 24 August 2012

The summer can't be over yet!

I'm sorry, loyal readers, about my lack of posts recently. I have spent the summer supervising pig decomposition projects, planning my wedding, watching the Olympics and having a short summer holiday with my man. Now, back at home, I am trying to eek out the last dregs of the summer, by preparing to attend a conference in (shucks) Portugal. It is the Emerging Security Technologies 2012 conference, and I will be giving a presentation in the Biometrics workshop about familiar face recongition (co-authored by C. Frowd and H. York). In the study, we asked volunteers to see if they could recognise the scanned faces of their friends - it gives us insight in exactly how we recognise familiar people, and strays quite a lot into psychology, which makes it extra exciting for me! Anyway, enough talking about it..I'd better get on with writing the presentation!

Sunday 8 July 2012

Fun at the Royal Society

This week, I had the honour of being part of the Summer Science Exhibition at the Royal Society. It is an annual event which showcases the best of British scientific endeavour in a fun exhibition open to the public. They host events such as panel discussions and Cafes Scientifiques. I was invited to chair a panel discussion on Friday evening entitled "Following the Fingerprints". The panel members were all well-known forensic scientists: Dr Paul Debenham, Director of Innovation and Development at LGC; Hayley-Jackson-Smith, forensic scientist with the London Metropolitan Police; Clea Koff, forensic anthropologist and author; and famous crime writer, Val McDermid. The room was packed with a mixed audience of students, scientists, children and "culturally-active" (the Royal Society's term, which I love) lay people. After a brief introduction from me, the panellists presented snippets of their work, including the benefits of Luminol for highlighting latent footwear marks in blood; the intricacies of DNA profiling; personal experiences in identifying victims of genocide; and how to write a best-selling suspense novel! Then we discussed such notions as why forensic science captures the imagination so; whether the expectations fuelled by TV shows can ever be reached; the importance of interpretation of forensic evidence; the future technological advancements that could revolutionise our judicial system; our moral obligations as forensic scientists; and many more thought-provoking concepts. The panel was fantastic, and I think we sparked off each other very well, and the audience provided a steady stream of challenging questions. A video of the evening will be available on the Royal Society website shortly.
I really enjoyed the experience, especially the feeling of bonding with the panellists under the friendly fire of the audience questions! I hope to work with each of the panellists again soon.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Book news

Hello again Lovely Readers! Long time no hear! I have emerged unscathed from a mound of exam-script marking, to be greeted by a pile of supervision feedback that won't write itself. While trying to keep all my other projects afloat.
The good news is that my favourite project at the moment - the new, indispensable book for Forensic Science Educators - has just been given the green light by Wiley! If all goes well, the book should hit shelves by the end of next year. In the meantime, all of you who call yourselves 'Forensic Educators', or simply 'educators with an interest in forensics', or even just 'slightly interested'; please have a look and contribute to our new hub of all things to do with Forensic Science Education. We are trying to find out about the real issues that affect real life people who are dealing with/coping with/battling/striding out in every day teaching, research and training in forensics. If you have an issue, and you'd like to share it (after all, 'a problem shared is a problem halved'), then please post a comment.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Busy, busy, busy!

Hello there readers! I apologise for the long delay in posting. My only excuse is that I have been rather busy over the last few months, marking exam scripts; setting up more pig decomposition experiments; running short courses; a little more TV consultancy, launching new book projects; and going on holiday. Oh, and I have got engaged too! Woo-hoo!

In the middle of May, I ran an Higher Education Academy-funded workshop in improving learner experience in forensic science education, open to all lecturers, teaching assistants, practitioner trainers and interested lay people, which was really well received. We used the workshop to launch a new 20 chapter volume dedicated to giving forensic educators and practitioner trainers a useful "tool-kit" for keeping their courses lively, relevant, high quality, and within budget.  If you're involved in forensic science education or training of any sort, or science education that includes a forensic element, have a look at the book project website. The book will be published by Wiley and will be out next year. I will keep you posted about its progress, never fear!

If you're interested in science communication and public outreach (and lets face it, who isn't?), then check out this event that I'll be chairing in July.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Silent Witness gets better

Those of you who have followed my antics from the start may remember one of my very early blog posts (On the set), in which I advised (well, visited, sat around and drank tea is probably more accurate) the cast and crew of Silent Witness about forensic anthropology. You might be interested to note that the episodes in question are due to be aired this week. The episodes are called And Then I Fell in Love (Part 1 and Part 2), and air on BBC1 at 9pm on Easter Sunday and Monday. Look out for the woman squashed into a suitcase - I helped to make her look more realistic by painting her with gravy browning. I also suggested that they increase the moisture content in the suitcase considerably, and I even got a chance to coach Emilia Fox on how to take some craniometric measurements and use spreading callipers - but she knew most of it already.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Washing up

Now, I don't usually bring my work home with me, or at least I try not to; mainly because it is not very popular with Him Indoors. However, this week, I have had to, largely because of silly Health and Safety rules at work. I'll explain. I am currently preparing for my module next week, which is Forensic Craniofacial Identification. This is a great module, of which the highlight is that the students get to try their very own facial reconstruction. This section of the course is taught by the very able and lovely Teri Blythe. Now, for the students to do this, they need a skull to reconstruct, obviously. We don't want them to use real ones, for (I hope) obvious reasons, so we buy these from France Casts, which is great. However, we cannot afford to buy new ones each year, so, inevitably, we have to clean them up each year, ready for the next lot of students. When I say 'we', I really mean 'I'. This is unless I can bribe an eager student into helping me - as I managed to do this year - but unfortunately not with a bribe of any real value at all - just major Brownie points!

So, "How do you get layers of plasticine off plastic skulls?" I hear you ask. Well, with difficulty, that's how! Suffice to say that it involves a LOT of white spirit, which, when I last checked, was not stocked in the stationery cupboard at work.

So, this was our draining board last night...  Ho hum.

Friday 9 March 2012

Mass Fatality Incidents

This week, I have been teaching on the Mass Fatality Incidents module at Cranfield. This is my favourite module, as the concepts raised in the module tend to stimulate a lot of debate amongst the students or delegates, and challenge their preconceived ideas. The course introduces students to the standard Interpol forms for Disaster Victim Identification, and gives them practical experience of collecting ante-mortem and post-mortem data, but it also opens their eyes to the humanitarian side of disaster management, and dealing with the living - survivors or bereaved relatives and friends. The module is truely holistic in its approach, which is rare in courses for forensic practitioners. I was delighted to receive feedback from the students declaring that it has made them want to become DVI practitioners in the future, and that they want to study disaster management in more depth now. If you are interested, you can find out more about the course on the Cranfield webpages. You may also be interested in joining the Institute for Civil Protection and Emergency Management, and attending their conference in April.
Many thanks to the students and delegates for a tiring, but really rewarding week!

Friday 2 March 2012

Secrets of Everything

Last year, I was lucky enough to be asked to contribute to a BBC3 programme called 'Ask A Stupid Question'. In it, TV presenter and general science junkie Greg Foot was attempting to answer weird and wonderful science questions sent in by viewers. For example, he did some experiments to answer 'what do humans taste of?' or 'if everyone in the world jumped at the same time, what would happen?' and other such corkers. I helped him answer the question 'how long would it take my body to decompose?', with the help of a friendly pig and the Forensic Fieldwork Facility. Anyway...now it is going to be on TV. It is a series of six (I believe) episodes, retitled 'Secrets of Everything', and the first episode will be broadcast this Sunday, the 4th March at 20.00 on BBC3. I'm not sure which episode will actually feature me and the pig, so I guess you'd better watch them all! Also, I'm afraid it clashes with Top Gear, but you've got to get your priorities right...

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Clash of the Titans

Again, this isn't strictly Forensic, but I would say it is broadly Anthropology. Last week, I was lucky enough to attend an Oxford Alumni Dialogue event, between Professor Richard Dawkins and Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. You can see a video of the event here. It was held in the Sheldonian Theatre in Broad Street, which filled me with nostalgia, as the last time I was there, I was dressed in a graduation gown. The theatre was packed with current students and alumni, as well as journalists and reporters desperate for a controversial sound-bite or two.
The dialogue was mediated by Dr Anthony Kenny, an agnostic and philosopher, who was clearly there to keep the peace and prevent metaphorical (or real) fisty-cuffs. Despite this, and the reporters gagging for a story, it was actually a very calm, genteel affair, more suited to a report in The Lady than to a tabloid. Richard and Rowan obviously have a great deal of respect for one another, and are probably good friends. They appeared to have tired of their audiences baying for blood, and offered gentle flattery and the lightest of teasing instead.
To give some structure to the proceedings, their dialogue was centred around four main points: the nature of humanity; the origin of humans as a species; the origin of the Earth; and finally; the ultimate origin of the Universe. Just enough to fill an hour and a half.
Now, I am a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, so I am probably biased, but I was expecting that Richard would be put through his paces, and be asked a difficult question or two; causing him to blush, get frustrated and even raise his voice. But I was disappointed. None of the gentle arguments posed by Rowan or Anthony even got his heart pumping. It wasn't an even match at all. Dawkins dealt with their comments in an indulgent, almost sympathetic way, but wasn't condescending. His convictions were left undisturbed, as were mine. He was as eloquent as ever, although I was a little perturbed by his use of the word 'lucky' to describe the chance happening of the origin of life on this planet, as I would have expected him to use a less value-laden, emotive word. It wasn't luck per se, just something that happened by accident. Other than that, he was brilliant! I'm going back to re-read The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion...

Wednesday 22 February 2012

AAFS nerves...

This evening, I am at home in England, preparing a presentation to give in Atlanta, Georgia tomorrow morning. No, I've not invented a time machine or developed teleportation, but am living vicariously through one of my collaborators. Last year, I gave a presentation at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference in Chicago, called 'Femmes Fatales: Why Women Dominate the Discipline of Forensic Anthropology.' It discussed the reasons why Forensic Anthropology appears to be inundated with women. At the moment, women outnumber men enrolled on Forensic Anthropology courses in the UK by at least 2:1, and this trend seems to be world-wide. After my talk, I was approached by a high-profile American Forensic Anthropologist, suggesting we collaborate on further research, to explore the extent of the phenomenon in professional practice on her side of the pond. This year, the presentation is called 'Further Femmes Fatales: Do Women Dominate Forensic Anthropology in the UK and the USA?'

So, here we are...the presentation is at 08.30 tomorrow morning - luckily in Atlanta time - which gives me a few more hours to finish writing the slides! I have always been a 'last minute' person, and I guess this situation is no different. My collaborator may be the one presenting to the audience in Atlanta tomorrow, but I will have butterflies and stage fright all the same.

Monday 6 February 2012

Lucius Valerius Geminus

Hey, kids. This post is not so much forensic anthropology, as archaeological conservation meets Asterix. Today, with a colleague, I have been priviledged to be involved in preserving for prosterity one of the rarest Roman tombstones in Britain. In roughly AD 43, the Roman legion Legio II Augusta came to England as part of the Roman invasion and conquest of Britain. This legion was responsible for building Hadrian's wall and defeating Boudica. After the defeat of Boudica, the legion dispersed over Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, and built a wooden fortress near Bicester, near what was to become the Roman town of Alchester. One of the legionnaires was Lucius Valerius Geminus, who took to life in England. He married a local girl, and didn't want to return to Italy in his old age. When he died, he was given a splendid, engraved tombstone. This tombstone was later smashed up and used as material to build a stone wall around the town. In 2003, excavations of the town wall began near the west gate. Most of the stone had been stolen, but two stones from the tombstone were found in situ and more in the rubble from the wall. The surviving stones from the tombstone are now under the care of Oxfordshire Museum Resource Centre, who asked Cranfield Forensic Institute to preserve them in virtual form, to provide 3D images for subsequent museum display. We started to scan the stones today and will continue tomorrow.
This is the fragmented tombstone as it looks today.
The inscription reads:
"To the souls of the departed: Lucius Valerius Geminus, the son of Lucius, of the Pollia voting tribe, from Forum Germanorum, verteran of the Second Augustan Legion, aged 50(?), lies here. His heir had this set up in accordance with his will."

We scanned it using our 3D topographical scanner, which generates a 3D mesh image that be used for stereo lithography (rapid prototyping). A mason will be given the images and asked to create a replica of the complete tombstone for display.

This is me getting to grips with the scanner!
Scanning in action!

Friday 3 February 2012

Miracle Day?

As part of the Further Forensic Anthropology: Identification module, which is running this week, I promised my students the opportunity to attend a routine post-mortem examination, kindly permitted by the Bereavement Services Department of Swindon Great Western Hospital. We were all set to go, briefed and jabbed up. The students could hardly contain their nerves, excitement, and in some cases, their breakfast. Unfortunately, at the very last minute, the mortuary staff informed me that the visit was off, due to the lack of deaths in the area that day or the day before. 'That's OK,' I told the expectant students, 'I am sure we'll be able to go tomorrow.' But, lo and behold, the next day, there weren't any deaths either. Although my students are disappointed, could this be Torchwood's Miracle Day actually happening? No deaths in the Swindon environs for three days now....

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Give a dog a bone

The Further Forensic Anthropology: Identification module is well under way. Thankfully, the weapon-wound matching exercise, for which my colleague Adrian and I had been preparing specimens for weeks by stabbing and hitting beef legs with screwdrivers and hammers, worked very well. The students all identified the bone that had been attacked with a cross-head screwdriver, but weren't so good at recognising bone hit with a ball-pein hammer! My GSD-cross Lucky even sacrificed one of his beloved bones for the exercise, but they all thought it had been gnawed by a mouse or a rat. That's enough to give a dog a complex!

Thursday 12 January 2012

Stab happy

Happy New Year to my readers! I'm back after a long, and I think, well deserved, break. I had a lovely, quiet Christmas, and plenty of time at home, which I relished.
Anyway, back to the forensics - that's what you're here for, after all.
Today, I have been creating specimens for my students to study in their next module, Further Forensic Anthropology: Identification. In this module, the students will learn about skeletal trauma and pathology, as well as have the chance to watch a real post-mortem examination. I'll be giving them an exercise in which they have to examine wounds made in bone by a variety of weapons, analyse the wounds and determine which weapon made the marks. So... I've had a great deal of fun stabbing cow bones with knives and screwdrivers (anything to hand, really) to my heart's content today, and woe betide anyone who has got in my way! I have ended up with blood-splattered safety specs and little bone chips in my hair, but hey, who cares?