Wednesday, 30 July 2014

It's Day 3 in the New Scientist office...

Wow! I’m now three days into my placement and I’ve only just found some breathing space to write a post. New Scientist goes to print on a Tuesday, so when I arrived on Monday afternoon (not morning – don’t ask – nightmare journey), everyone had their heads down, furiously tapping away on their keyboards. The big open plan office was buzzing with typing and brains whirring. I was introduced to everyone, who all seemed very friendly but busy; given a desk and computer, and set to work finding a winning news story related to (luckily) forensic science. I won’t spoil the surprise, in case it makes it to the magazine or New Scientist online.

I was surprised at how difficult I found it to choose a piece of research that was (a) not too niche and esoteric only of interest to a small handful of academics, or (b) hadn’t already been plastered all over the headlines. This is really a skill that I need to acquire! I thought that a bit of insider knowledge would help, but it may even have hindered me slightly, as I was acutely conscious of what colleagues would say if I wrote anything remotely inaccurate.

The next day was particularly frantic, and really nothing like I’m used to in (relatively) slow-paced academia. Keyboards were smoking until at least lunchtime, but as I didn’t have a piece in the magazine that day and wasn’t under the same pressure, I researched a couple of other forensic stories, completed my Health and Safety induction and familiarised myself with the tea and coffee-making facilities. I was shown around the whole London office, which I was amazed to discover only contains about 60 people, who between them manage the ‘Upfront’ and bite-size ‘60 seconds’ news stories, editorial features, technological advances, careers, opinion and letters sections, as well as designing artwork, layout, online content and marketing. Talk about talented! And they do it every week!

By late Tuesday afternoon, there was a collective sigh of relief as “final copy” made it to the publishers, and a well-deserved pint was in order.

Only three days in, although I feel a little out of my comfort zone, I am really enjoying the difference between science journalism and academic research. Whereas the latter needs sound results and robust methodology, the former is more focused on finding an intriguing angle for each story, and although scientific accuracy is paramount, the human perspective is necessary too. I am loving the challenge, and hoping that I can learn to master the art of science writing.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Hitting the headlines

It must be a slow news day in Huddersfield, because I've made it into the Huddersfield Examiner for the second time in as many months! They've picked up the story of my recent award of a British Science Association Media Fellowship, and the fact that I will be doing a stint at New Scientist this summer.
Here's the article.
The previous article was about me joining the Forensic Science team at the University of Huddersfield and bringing the 'sexy' (their words, not mine) subject of Forensic Anthropology to the syllabus. I must say, I would have liked the opportunity to have another photo taken! However, I am delighted to say that there is a new MSc in Forensic Anthropology starting in September 2014. There are still places available, so get your application in!

Friday, 6 June 2014

Science Scoops

I am thrilled to have been awarded a British Science Association Media Fellowship, and I am particularly excited to be joining the team at New Scientist this summer.

The British Science Association is a national organisation dedicated to the advancement of science engagement. Their vision is of a world where science is seen as a core part of our culture and society. Every year, the BSA holds lots of science engagement events, including the British Science Festival. This year it will be in Birmingham, from the 6th to 11th of September.
Every year, for the past 27 years, the BSA has awarded ten Media Fellowships to scientists interested in science communication and engagement to a wider audience, offering working placements in several prestigious publications or media outlets. This year’s outlets include Nature News; BBC Countryfile, The Times, The Scotsman; BBC radio/online, the Guardian and New Scientist. The scheme is designed to allow scientists to learn first-hand how science journalism works, how journalists, researchers and reporters get a science story from idea to page or screen, and how to navigate media attention in scientific work.
Yesterday was the first time we all got to meet each other, as we attended the Briefing Day in London. What an interesting, diverse bunch! The Fellows hail from a wide range of specialisms, including earth science, neurology, botany, astronomy, medicine and (muggins) anthropology. There’s everyone from PhD students and postdocs to lecturers and even a Professor. Name badges in place, it was like freshers’ week all over again, except instead of ‘which A’ levels did you do?’, the questions were ‘what's your research?’ and ‘which media outlet are you going to?’.

As scientists with either limited or no experience of the world of journalism and broadcasting, we were treated to glimpses of how science journalists find a news-worthy story and pitch it to editors, how they craft headlines and interview experts in a whole range of fields. Over the summer, we will all have to take on the personas of story-hungry reporters and go trawling for science scoops.

We were pushed in at the deep end and asked to write a press release about our work, and then we interviewed one of our peers about theirs. Immediately I was struck by how journalists have to be reasonably knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects - “up to undergraduate level”, which is quite a daunting prospect for someone who dropped Physics after O’ Level!
After that, we fired questions at the organisers, and then got to meet some of the previous Media Fellows, all of whom had found the experience extremely worthwhile and rewarding. I must admit that, by lunchtime, I’d been a bit daunted by the prospect of working as a science journalist for a month in the summer; but by the end of the day, I was really looking forward to it! I was very glad that the others seemed to be having similar thoughts. I’m nervous about cold-calling scientists for sound bites, but am excited about potentially (hopefully) contributing positively to the public’s awareness and comprehension of important science stories. I’m also looking forward to working not only with new colleagues at New Scientist, but with the nine other stimulating, thought-provoking and cool Media Fellows.

Follow the British Science Association and Media Fellowships on Twitter: @BritSciAssociat and @MediaFellows.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Skeleton Crew

Have you ever, like me, stared out of a moving train or car at the waste ground by the side of the track or road and wondered if there’s a dead body lying there? Every now and again, something incongruous like a crumpled piece of coloured fabric or a lumpy bin bag catches your eye and you think ‘could that be a body?’; but by the time the thought is fully formed, you’re further down the track and it’s too late? 

The Skeleton Crew tells the story of people who are constantly on the lookout, and who follow the stories of unclaimed bodies found by the side of the road or railway track. It describes a forgotten backwater of investigation – away from the relative ‘glamour’ of police work and forensic science – the vast hoards of private individuals working hard to solve cold cases. This is the story of those dedicated – sometimes obsessed – people who sacrifice time, money and even relationships or sanity to put names to the bodies metaphorically and often literally ‘left by the wayside’. Halber tells of the ‘web-sleuths’ who spend hours at clunky computers scrolling through thousands upon thousands of descriptions of missing people, waiting for that tiny, elusive, spark of recognition. We are introduced to the ‘Facebook for the Dead’ databases such as NamUs and the DoeNetwork, where eerie facial composites or reconstructions sit atop biological profiles, like a morbid dating site. She tells of how their suggestions of potential matches are often overlooked or ignored by the police, and how the world of the cyber detectives has its own culture, customs, language and politics. But for them, the chance of a ‘hit’ – a successful match or positive identification, based on fingerprints, DNA or dental records - is the ultimate prize, keeping them searching even when the odds appear stacked against them. 

Through a series of intriguing, interlocking episodes, Halber weaves the stories of the grieving families with those of the unnamed remains languishing in mortuary fridges. She flits between narratives, describing unknown bodies with romantic names like the Lady in the Dunes or Tent Girl. The reader is not allowed to get too comfortable, echoing the desperation of the hunt; and Halber doesn't shy away from gore, recounting autopsies and identifications in forensic detail. This book was shocking and cheering in almost equal measure. The volume of unidentified remains and missing people is very scary, but it is uplifting and moving to think that, behind the scenes of the white suits and the police investigations, there is an army of ordinary philanthropists on the case.

Deborah Halbers’ The Skeleton Crew is available for pre-order here.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Written In Blood

Just realised that I forgot to post something about this review that I did for BBC Focus Magazine last month. It's not on the website, so I have scanned it in and posted it up here - sorry the letters are a bit indistinct. I read and wrote a review of Mike Silverman's autobiographical book Written In Blood, that tells of his career in forensic serology and blood spatter analysis in the UK before, during and after the Forensic Science Service. Hope you can read my review, and that you like it, and that you are tempted to read his book as a result.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Burial Research Consortium blog

I am proud to be a member of the Burial Research Consortium, which is a group of academics from universities across the world who specialise in taphonomy and decomposition research, applied to the forensic, archaeological and geological context. We have just launched a new webpage and blog about our antics. Our group aims to bring together academics with common goals and encourages multi-disciplinary collaboration to increase our understanding of human and faunal decomposition and taphonomy in a variety of burial and surface environments.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

A little something..

Here's a little article from Huddersfield University* about me. Little video too. Please note, I had a cold that day!

*Did I mention that Huddersfield University has been awarded the Times Higher Education Award for University of the Year? It has, you know.