A little of my interdisciplinary journey so far...sand dunes to forensic science
Forensic science is a fascinating field - who doesn't love a good mystery, following clues, figuring out what they mean and getting to a resolution? But if you chat to many people who work in and around forensic science the thing that will strike you is that everyone has had a different journey. People have come from different backgrounds and have very different roles, and they engage with the science in different ways. That means it can be difficult to offer advice about 'how to get into forensic science' because there isn't really one set path, and actually the diversity of people's backgrounds and experiences is one of the things that is really valuable. This post is drawn from a piece that came out recently in Generation Tribe. I hope that it's helpful to share some of my journey, but as just one of many stories that are out there. Your story will be different, but here is something of my story so far: The beginnings It was a chilly autumn afternoon, I was at work and going through the transcript from a murder trial. I had got to the part where the forensic science evidence was presented to the court when I got that feeling of ice in the pit of my stomach. The evidence was based on two assumptions that hadn’t been tested, and on the basis of that evidence two men were convicted. In that moment I knew that science evidence has the potential to tell us a huge amount, but only if we are able to understand what it means. Many years later that trial was found to be unsafe, a retrial was ordered and both men exonerated. Only then was the case reopened and the real perpetrator found. The lightbulb moment I studied geography at university. One summer I was working on a research project looking to reconstruct a past environment from the clues we could find in the sediments that I’d collected from a giant sand dune in northern Chile. I was doing the same type of analyses as my supervisor was doing, except he was working on a (now famous) case reconstructing what had happened after a murder and reconstructing events that had taken place over a few days and weeks. In comparison, the events in the project I was working on took place over a few thousand years! I was curious and ended up doing a PhD in forensic geoscience to explore the forensic science applications of environmental science. It brought together my fascination in how the world works and how people interact with their environment, with an application that could make a difference in the real world. Some of the findings from my PhD contributed to that murder trial being found unsafe. I was hooked. Finding a job After the PhD I started looking for jobs. I knew that I loved research, but I’d also had the opportunity to teach while I was doing my PhD so I applied for lots of different roles within the university sector, and got a job at UCL in the department of Crime Science. There was no forensic science at UCL then, so with the help and support of some great colleagues and supportive senior management, I set up the UCL Centre for the Forensic Sciences. Fast forward to 2020 and we’ve built a research centre that is doing fundamental research to not only plug the significant gaps in forensic science but raise awareness of these gaps. The main challenge we’re looking at is the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of evidence. So what does that mean we need to do next? We need to address these challenges for science to be better understood and for science to be able to answer the difficult questions that the justice system needs answering. To get the science happening that can answer those questions, great research is the first step. But for that research to make a difference in the real world we need to make sure that people know that these challenges exist in forensic science, that the urgency of addressing them is only increasing, and that we need to act now to make the changes that are needed. This can be quite challenging, the world is very noisy with lots of really important messages being broadcast. But having opportunities to explain the challenges we face, why they matter, and what we can do to fix them, is a part of my current job that I love. In the last couple of years, some of the highlights have been giving a TED talk, speaking at innovation conferences, writing and speaking in the media, being the Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into forensic science, and becoming part of the World Economic Forum’s Young Scientists. These opportunities have really confirmed for me a strong belief that when we create spaces to work together, we can make the world a better place. Looking back and looking forward... I get asked occasionally if there is any advice I can offer to people looking at getting into science or forensic science. My reflections from my experience so far are probably applicable to most fields where there isn't a clearly defined and set pathway (which is definitely the case for forensic science!). 1. Vision Having a vision that you believe in is really important. It helps you make decisions about what to aim for next, and it keeps you going when you face the (inevitable) failures. In fact, the things that haven’t worked over the last few years have taught me so much, and actually inspired new creative approaches to solving those challenges. Figuring out a way forward can be quite a buzz when you do make that breakthrough (even if the failure at the time is really hard to handle!). 2. Success and perseverance Success is rarely something that ‘just happens’, so having that vision that keeps you persevering is really important. I’m also very aware that it’s rare for anyone to achieve anything without the help and belief of others. Find those people who inspire and encourage you. 3. Growth mindset A 'growth mindset' is really powerful. You are responsible and accountable for what you prioritise, and what you do. You have the power to make choices, and if things don't work out, you have the power to figure out another way forward. This is pretty scary because it means that you're going to encounter failures (and probably quite a lot of them). But I've learnt that you don’t know what you’re good at, or what you really enjoy until you give it a go. And if something doesn’t work out, it’s almost always something that you can learn from and that will make you stronger. So don’t be afraid to take a risk and try something new.