This week, we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Anna Williams – a forensic anthropologist, “scent of death” and decomposition expert at the University of Huddersfield.
Here, she shares her experiences and stories. Read on to find her top tips for pursuing a career in forensic anthropology.
Describe yourself in one sentence.
A real-life ‘Bones’ with a passion for forensic anthropology; solving puzzles and finding the truth; setting up a ‘Body Farm’ in the UK; and igniting interest in forensic science in others.
Describe your current work and research.
I lead the Forensic Anthropology Research Group at Huddersfield University, where one of our major pieces of research is the identification of decomposition gases, and using these to improve the training and assessment of specially-trained ‘cadaver dogs’. I specialise in taphonomy research and we have a dedicated outdoor laboratory for doing decomposition experiments on animal analogues*. I teach on undergraduate and postgraduate forensic courses and supervise PhD students. I regularly do casework for UK police forces, and sometimes disaster victim identification. As Principal Enterprise Fellow, I also do a lot of public engagement, such as science festivals, TV documentaries and schools outreach.
*never killed for the purposes of the research.
What inspired you to join this field?
I wanted to be a detective from about the age of seven. During my Archaeology and Anthropology degree, I found the human osteology and hominid evolution the most interesting, and especially the idea of gleaning information from small pieces of evidence. For my dissertation, I worked out the cause and manner of death of a famous Viking skeleton. Then I discovered a short course in Forensic Anthropology at Bradford University, which allowed me to use my logical mind and interest in osteology to find the truth and help to catch criminals. I was hooked, and the rest is history!
Describe your education and career trajectory to this point.
I did Archaeology and Anthropology at Oxford, and then an MSc in Forensic Anthropology at Bradford. As a result of my MSc research, I got a job with West Yorkshire Police as a Forensic Mark Analyst. After a year, I decided I wanted to do a PhD, and did one in fracture healing at Sheffield University. In 2004, I got a post-doc position at Cranfield, which lead to a Lectureship, and designing the MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology there. After nine years, I moved to Huddersfield as a Senior Lecturer in 2013, and have since been promoted to Principal Enterprise Fellow in Forensic Anthropology.
Tell us a story of something interesting you’ve worked on.
A few years ago, I was asked to examine a human skull and two arm bones found in an allotment. A forensic pathologist had already stated that they were archaeological and from a local cemetery. After a brief examination, I found a filling in the teeth, which told me that this was a recent skull, and likely to be of interest to the police. I did an ‘osteological profile’ of the remains, giving estimates for age, sex, ancestry and stature, which was published in the local paper. A name was suggested, leading to a DNA test of a potential relative, and eventually a full positive identification.
What tips can you provide for people wishing to pursue a career in your field?
The field of forensic anthropology is very competitive and sometimes harrowing. You need to be very sure that you want to do it. Doing a specialised Masters course allows you to see if this is the career for you, and helps your CV. You can make yourself stand out by getting experience through volunteer work, such as for a museum or archaeological unit, or shadowing a CSI, Coroner or pathologist. Also, be aware that there are very few jobs available in the UK where you do Forensic Anthropology casework full-time, so most FAs work somewhere else, such as a university or museum, as well as doing casework.
Your turn: Do you have any questions for Anna or our team? Leave them here.