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Anna Williams

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Favourite Thing: I like thinking of a hypothesis, and then designing an experiment to test it and only it. I enjoy figuring out how to reduce the variables in the experiment, and working out what the control specimens should be. Once you get the experimental design right, the actual results you get are almost less important, because whatever they are, they will tell you something about your theory, and you’ll be able to support or refute your hypothesis.

My CV

School:

Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa (1989-1993)

University:

BA (Hons) Archaeology and Anthropology, Oxford University (1995-1998); MSc Forensic Anthropology, Bradford University (1998-1999); PhD Forensic Anthropology, Sheffield University (2001-2004)

Work History:

West Yorkshire Police (2000-2001); Sheffield Medico-Legal Centre (2001-2004)

Employer:

Cranfield University (2004-)

Current Job:

Lecturer in Forensic Anthropology

Me and my work

I go to crime scenes and disasters to identify dead people from their bones.

I’m a forensic anthropologist, which, I usually say to people, is like a forensic pathologist (like Harry and Nicky on Silent Witness), but who justs deals with skeletal remains. We examine recently dead bodies and bodies that have been dead for hundreds of years, and work out what we can about who they were, how they lived, and how they died. We examine the decomposing or skeletonised remains (it can sometimes be very very smelly), and look for certain features in the pelvis or skull that can help us say whether they’re male or female. We look at developmental milestones in the growth of the skeleton, or signs of bony degeneration to determine the age they were when they died, and we can measure specific parts of their bones to tell how tall they were when they were alive. By examining the skeleton all over, we can look for signs of disease, or trauma such as fractures, that can help us say something about how they lived – for example, did they have a limp, or arthritis, or was their face marked with signs of syphilis? We can sometimes see tell-tale signs on their bones that belie how they died – for example, knife nicks in the ribs or vetebrae, or blunt force trauma on the skull.

 

Some forensic anthropologists, like me, also get involved with identifying the dead after a mass disaster, like a plane crash or a tsunami. Here we join a big team of scientists who examine every single victim and take detailed notes about all the features on their body we can see. If the bodies are badly damaged, we will use our expertise to determine age, sex and ethnicity from x-rays instead of the bones. We will look at identifying features such as prothestic implants like pace-makers, or tattoos too. At the same time, other teams are compiling information from the families who think they have lost people in the disaster, and building files of missing people. These files contain information about dental records, nose shape and eye colour, and scars and marks. Eventually the teams match up these details to make positive identifications and return the bodies to their families, so the families can have funerals and say goodbye properly.

My Typical Day

Mainly lecturing, with a side of police work, a big dollop of research, and a sprinkling of TV consultancy.

There’s no typical day, which I like! I spend a lot of my time lecturing on our MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology, running osteology practicals, or marking exams and assignments. I run courses in basic osteology (bones) and anthropology, where I teach students how to determine the age, sex, height and ethnic ancestry of skeletons. I really enjoy the teaching, as it is great to see that gradually, the students put together all the little things I’ve showed them, and soon they are observing features on the bones that I haven’t even noticed!

This is me in the lab with some students myimage2

Here’s a picture of a facial reconstruction done by one of my students myimage1

I also help students with their Masters dissertation projects. These are 3 month original research projects, which I really love supervising. Mostly, the ones I supervise are to do with understanding decomposition. I have recently set up a new Forensic Fieldwork Facility, which is a bit like a mini ‘Body Farm’ like the one in the Tennessee in the USA (mine is more like a ‘Body Allotment’!), where we can bury pigs, or place them on the surface of the ground, and watch how they decompose. We have sophisticated cameras and measuring equipment that tracks the weather conditions, as decomposition is extremely dependent on temperature and environment. I have one student who is currently examining the difference in decomposition rate between babies, children and adults, so we have placed four pigs of different ages out on the soil and we are measuring how fast they decompose. Once they have completely skeletonised, we will examine the bone under a microscope and with an XRD (X-ray diffraction) machine, to see how the mineral in their bone has changed.

This is one of the pigs we are investigating myimage3

When I am not teaching, I do my own research. I am currently trying to find out why so many girls and women do Forensic Anthropology, but there aren’t that many guys. If you have any ideas about why this is, I’d love to hear them! I’m finding it fascinating to find out what inspires young people to go into the science, and I hope I can be a part of it. Blokes…the science needs you! I am also doing some research at the moment into how ‘cadaver dogs’ (special sniffer dogs who are trained to detect dead bodies after earthquakes or disasters, or in secret graves where they’ve been buried by their murderers) work. I would like to set up a special training school for cadaver dogs to test their detection rates.

In addition to this, the Police sometimes bring me some bones to examine, if they’ve been found in the woods or in someone’s garden. I can look at them, and tell the Police whether they are animal or human, and whether they are archaeological or recent. If they are human bones, I can usually say something about whether the person was male or female, how old they were when they died, and perhaps where they came from. I find it very satisfying if the Police say “Yes, that’s just like one of the missing people we have!”, and the body is finally identified.

What I'd do with the money

Would you like to investigate a real dead (pig) body? I’d start a Discover Decomposition workshop for teenagers on my mini “Body Farm” (Forensic Fieldwork Facility).

If I was lucky enough to win, I’d put it towards setting up a Forensic Anthropology workshop for young learners. We would examine human and animal skeletons, and learn to tell the difference between them. We’d look at how forensic anthropologists determine the cause of death and the age and sex of a body. You’d also get the chance to visit the new Forensic Fieldwork Facility, where you’d investigate a “crime” and examine a real dead body (pig). It might be smelly! You’d need to be protected in real forensic crime scene suits, and take photos like a real forensic photographer. You’d learn how to describe the decomposition, and learn first hand how forensic entomologists (insect experts) determine how long a body has been dead by looking at the maggots and insects on the body.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

‘Bones’ meets Nigella! :)

Who is your favourite singer or band?

I love Billy Joel, but at the moment, I’m listening to Adele and Aloe Blacc.

What is the most fun thing you've done?

When I was about 15, I did some extreme pot-holing in South Africa, which was very challenging and fun. Since then, erm..going to see the Knicks play the Chicago Bulls at Madison Square Garden in New York, and climbing all the way up inside the Statue of Liberty. I haven’t swum with sharks or dolphins, but I’ve held a lion cub, which was lovely. Stroking its fur felt like running your hands through dry grass.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1. Win a big research grant to improve the Forensic Fieldwork Facility (like the “Body Farm” in Tennessee) I have created. 2. Start a facility to test and train cadaver dogs. 3. Get married to my lovely boyfriend.

What did you want to be after you left school?

I knew I wanted to be a detective from the age of about 7. After school, I did archaeology and anthropology, as I thought it was the closest I could get to it – making inferences and drawing answers from tiny clues in the soil. I loved learning about the skeletal evidence of hominid origins, and so, when I found out that I could combine both detective work and skeletal analysis as a forensic anthropologist, I was hooked!

Were you ever in trouble in at school?

Just a little bit. I forged a few notes to get me out of PE – a bit ironic now that I work in forensics!

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I think it must be advising on BBC’s Silent Witness. I gave advice recently on a story line about a body found in a peat bog, and I was allowed to see and make changes to the prosthetic body, go on location and meet and advise the actors on how to carry out their examination of the ‘body’. I made sure that the protocols they used were correct, and that the conclusions they came to were right. It was great fun! Also, I recently gave a presentation to a huge audience at a big international conference in America, and the audience really enjoyed my talk, and gave me a standing ovation! It felt amazing!

Tell us a joke.

What does a skeleton order in a restaurant? The spare ribs!