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.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Meeting Mandela

This post is about a different kind of anthropology than usual. It is about the anthropology of hope and perseverance and triumph over adversity. My upbringing was unconventional and nomadic, and courtesy of my parents' wander-lust, I have visited and lived in many different countries. One of them was Swaziland, a small kingdom tucked into the corner of South Africa, overlooked by many and currently floundering under the rule of a young, naive king. I was lucky enough to live there from 1989-1993, and attend an amazing school, Waterford Kamhlaba, United World College of Southern Africa. The school was pioneering and revolutionary, set up in the early 60's because its founders believed children of all nationalities, ethnic backgrounds and cultures had a right to a good education, together. On the side of a mountain often shrouded in fog, just outside the Swazi capital Mbabane, the school offered a sanctuary from the apartheid regime of South Africa which segregated blacks and whites. News of the school's multi-racial and multi-cultural ideals soon spread around South Africa, and many political leaders and activists sent their children or relatives there, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Desmond Tutu.
When I arrived at the school in the late 1980's, Nelson Mandela was still in prison, but this did not dampen the sense of hope and resilience among the staff and students. If we could live and work in harmony, and help people in the local villages, schools and hospitals through community service, and offer an education to those who might otherwise have missed out; then it was possible for it to happen across the border in South Africa. The political agenda was never far from our thoughts, and our rallying cries for equality across the races a constant theme at school. I shared my classes (French in particular) with both Mandela's grandson Mandla and Sisulu's grand-daughter Ayanda, and Mandela's defiance in prison was often uppermost in our minds. And then came the day that none of us there will ever forget. I was 13, and suddenly there was a buzz, an electricity around the school, in the classrooms, canteen and corridors. People streamed into the TV room, crowding in, sitting on the floor, on the window sills, craning to see Mandela released from Robin Island. When he appeared on the screen, his arm raised in a fist, the room erupted into clapping, singing and dancing. I remember the distinctive African wail of joy filling the room. Everything had changed. There was a new beginning, a visible end to the oppression, a new light.
I was lucky enough to meet the man himself, soon after his release. He visited the school, on a bit of a whim, to see his grandson and his friends. I remember watching him wrapping his arms around Ayanda's shoulders and asking her how good her French was (she was very good, I knew, from our French classes). She giggled that her French was OK, and he said in a jokey way, "Good! Zaire needs an ambassador." His gentle, caring and protective nature was apparent even in that little gesture. That day, I got to shake his hand and say hello to him. I think I may have curtseyed. To him, I was one of hundreds of teenagers he said hello to on his visit to his grandson's school, but to me, he was a true leader, a hero, a martyr and an inspiration, all rolled into one.