What is your current job role and what does this involve?
I am currently a Senior Lecturer in Geosciences at Keele University in the Midlands. My time is divided between teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students, supervising MSc and PhD students, and doing research and forensic casework. I teach on a wide range of Degree Programmes, including Forensic Science, Environmental Science, Geoscience/Geology,and Geography programmes, as well as M.Geoscience undergraduate Masters and the MSc in Geoscience Research. My PhD students are, however, mostly focused on forensic geophysics projects, for example, characterisation of mass burial sites, or looking at optimum detection methods to detect clandestine graves of murder victims. These student researchers do most of the hard work! Part of our role is also to engage with the public and communicate our research to lay people, including school children, interested adults and other scientists. For example, we run a bi-annual CSI event in Stoke-on-Trent, this year focusing on a HLF-funded Science behind WW1 event.
How did you come to be involved in forensic geophysics and what initially attracted you to this field of work?
I have come from a geoscience background, and when I was studying for a PhD, I became really interested in how geophysics can help the detection of buried objects, sometimes up to 10 m below the ground! This led onto various roles to do this, and, when at Keele University, I became involved in a cold case search by North Wales Police which piqued my interest and I have been hooked on forensic geophysics ever since!
Can you tell us about the research you are currently involved in at Keele University?
Ok so a lot of unsolved murder cases include the search for clandestine graves of murder victims; without the body, it is, generally, very difficult to obtain a murder conviction of a suspect. Detection rates of victims of unsolved murders over significant periods of time, say of 1+ years, are generally poor. Therefore collaborative researchers are undertaking controlled experiments, in order to see what methods may work best to find a body which has been missing for a particular length of time, in specific soil and ground conditions. These controlled experiments use pig cadavers as human analogues, due to their similarity in body/organ sizes, tissue:fat ratios, skin/hair type, etc. These can be for significant periods of time monitoring them, for example, I have been monitoring some for 9 years of burial so far. 6 years of multi-technique geophysical survey results can be viewed here. Interestingly GPR, which everyone uses, may not be the best geophysical technique in certain soil types, electrical resistivity may be better in clay-rich soils for example. An unexpected result has been the ability for the decompositional fluids of victims to be detected, and even allow a Post-Mortem Interval to be determined, based on its conductivity.
We have also been looking at geophysical survey results from graveyard burials in different graveyards and cemeteries, in order to push back the geophysical responses of older burials and even been involved in looking for Medieval mass burials of the so-called Black Death Plague in Central London! We have, with colleagues, even been looking at indoor areas to identify forensic objects of interest and the use of drones for location purposes.
Further afield, I have also been assisting colleagues in Spain look for mass burials of victims from the 1930s Spanish Civil War and sadly more modern victims in Colombia using near-surface geophysical methods.
Aside from research, have you had any involvement in police casework, and if so what does this typically involve?
As mentioned, in the UK this has generally been less on active search cases for the missing (which are, most commonly, solved by conventional Police investigations), and more on unsolved murders over longer periods of time (so-called cold cases). This will involve reviewing the case and any previous information/search data, then visiting potential search sites, collecting trial geophysical data and confirming the local soil types, before conducting full geophysical surveys. If there are any anomalous results in the resulting geophysical datasets, then the Police Service search teams are contacted and intrusive investigations may then commence on targeted anomalies. The North Wales paper is a good example of this. As there are less time restrictions, we can also conduct control grave studies, by burying a ‘pretend’ victim in a particular depositional environment, to see what method may work best to find them. We did this to look for one of the so-called ‘IRA Disappeared’ who was buried in a beach, so we buried a mannikin in a beach to see what would work to find ‘her’, which was successful.
Do you have any words of advice for students wishing to pursue a career in your field of work?
Many of our students (undergraduate and postgraduate) study for a more general Degree (e.g. Geoscience) which can give them generic skills that they can use in a whole host of applied employment, for example in the geotechnical site investigation world, environmental contaminated land issues and characterization, general exploration, mining, etc., so that a forensic geophysical project can still lead to employment, even if it is not in a forensic geophysical capacity. A project geophysicist role in a geophysical company will sometimes be involved in both active and cold cases, and even for the search for unmarked burials in cemeteries in graveyards, so it can be a vary varied job role, it was for me!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
If you like a varied role, are inquisitive and like problem-solving tasks, but are still observant and rigorous, then this area may well be for you! Why not get in touch?!
Read more about forensic geophysics.