Interview with Forensic Anthropologist Dr Anna Williams

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What is your current job role and what does this involve?

I am Principal Enterprise Fellow (equivalent to Reader or Associate Professor) in Forensic Anthropology at the University of Huddersfield. My time is divided between teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, supervising MSc and PhD students, and doing research and forensic casework. I teach on the BSc/MSci Forensic and Analytical Sciences, and the MSc in Forensic Anthropology and the MSc in Risk, Disaster and Environmental Management. Part of my role is also to engage with the public and communicate our research to lay people, including school children, interested adults and other scientists. I regularly present at academic conferences, local interest groups, Science Festivals and public events. This year, I am presenting at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. I have also been featured in several TV science documentaries, and regularly consult for TV shows like Bones, Rosewood and Silent Witness. I also write a blog about my adventures in forensic anthropology.

What initially attracted you to this field of work?

I did a mixture of sciences and humanities at A Level and could never decide which I liked best, so I chose Archaeology and Anthropology as my first degree. There, I was fascinated by what you could tell about individuals by their skeletal remains, for example about hominid evolution. Then I discovered the burgeoning science of Forensic Anthropology, on a short course at Bradford University, and that was it, I was hooked! I love how you can glean all sorts of information from the smallest pieces of evidence. I have always loved logic problems, and forensic anthropology offers the most exciting puzzles. The fact that it is often confronting, challenging and disturbing, and could help to bring criminals to justice, just serves to add to its appeal for me.

Can you tell us about the research you are currently involved in at the University of Huddersfield?

I specialise in decomposition and taphonomy (the study of how bodies decay in different environments). To do this, I use an outdoor decomposition laboratory. I lead a research group currently doing research into the gases given off by decomposing cadavers (we use pigs that have died of natural causes), and comparing that to the efficiency of police dogs that are specially trained to find dead bodies. We’re also looking at how skin colour changes in surface or water environments, and trying to find ways to improve our estimation of post-mortem interval and post-mortem submersion interval. Other research is focussed on the taphonomic changes that occur to bone and teeth in hot, arid environments. I am also running a citizen science project in order to improve age estimation of unknown individuals from dental eruption. There is a webpage and online questionnaire for anyone who would like to help us build a large, modern set of tooth eruption data to see if dental eruption ages are changing.

Aside from research, are you often involved in police casework, and what does this typically involve?

Sometimes I am asked by the police to attend crime scenes or mortuaries to undertake forensic examination of decomposed or skeletonised remains. They can be either the victims of crime, or the remains of people who have gone missing. I will determine whether they are human or animal, and if they are human, I will estimate the age at death, sex, stature and ancestry of the individual(s), and try to say something about their lifestyle, disease, injury and how they died. I work in conjunction with forensic archaeologists and odontologists, as well as pathologists, to reach an identification. I also do consultancy for forensic science providers and, on occasion, a mass disaster company that helps to ‘clean up’ after disaster and repatriate the victims. I am involved in disaster victim identification and the Emergency Operations Centre.

The existence of so-called ‘body farms’ has sparked great interest in the media. Are there plans to establish such a facility in the UK? What are the primary challenges associated with this?

I believe that Human Taphonomy Facilities, or ‘Body Farms’ as they have become colloquially known, are vital for the advancement of forensic science. We owe all that we know already about human decomposition to the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee, and there is so much more to learn. We need to know how human conditions like diabetes, cancer, smoking and drug use affect our decomposition, which is something we cannot learn from experimenting with dead pigs. Unfortunately, a lot of the data generated by the ‘Body Farms’ in the USA and Australia are not directly relevant to forensic cases in the UK or Europe, because of the different climate, insects and scavengers. The UK is falling behind the USA and Australia by not having one of these outdoor laboratories where vital decomposition research can be done on donated cadavers. There was an attempt to establish a Body Farm in the UK in 2011, but this failed for a variety of financial and political reasons. I think the main obstacles to getting one set up in the UK are lack of funding, public awareness and rivalry between academic institutions. I hope that, in the near future, we will be able to create a facility where researchers, academics and practitioners will be able to work together to improve methods of search and recovery, post-mortem interval estimation and identification of human remains.

Do you have any words of advice for students wishing to pursue a career in forensic anthropology?

Forensic anthropology is a very competitive field, and there aren’t many jobs out there, so you need to be dedicated and determined. It can also be hard work and distressing, so decide carefully whether you want to pursue a career in it. The best way to make yourself stand out from the crowd of other applicants to jobs is to have experience, so try to get as much hands-on experience as you can. This doesn’t have to be forensic (although, of course, that would be preferable), but can be in archaeological units or museums or hospitals (or even zoos), somewhere where you can deal with human (or animal) bodies.

Images from Research

These pictures show the progression of decomposition in a small (10kg) pig. The first picture shows the pig in the fresh stage, when post-mortem interval was less than 24 hours. The second picture shows the pig in the active decay stage, 25 days later. The brown froth is decomposition fluid that has been agitated by the movement of maggots. The body was bloated with decomposition gases, but has now collapsed, and the intestines are escaping. The skin has desiccated, but the hair is still intact. The skin has darkened and become leathery in texture. The bones are becoming detached from the body.

pig1

Surface pig 1, day 0

pig2

Surface pig 1, day 25

 

Website: www.forensicanna.com

Twitter: @Bonegella

Also, you can follow #scentofdeath and #teamtaphonomy

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