Dame Sue Black shares her thoughts on forensic science, its uses and limitations, the impact of modern technologies and offers a steer to those seeking to follow in her footsteps.
How does forensic anthropology differ from forensic science overall?
I’m not sure it does differ really, as any science becomes ‘forensic’ only when it is used as evidence in court. Forensic anthropology is a forensic science. Any investigative team will select the forensic expertise that is required specific to a given case. So it might involve a forensic anthropologist, a forensic archaeologist, a forensic pathologist, a forensic entomologist etc. We are all a small cog in the larger wheel of the investigation.
As a pioneer of vein pattern analysis in the UK, did it surprise you that this technique was not harnessed earlier?
In 1911, Professor Tamassia of the University of Padua, suggested that vein patterns on the back of the hand might be useful for identification purposes. This was picked up by the American crime novelist, Arthur B Reeve, and appeared in his book The Poisoned Pen in 1912. There being no obvious need for further research, it faded away.
In the 1980s Joe Rice, an engineer at Kodak’s Annesley factory, had his identity stolen and so he invented and patented the first vein reader. The research was dropped again in the late 1990s as there was said to be no commercial interest. He let the patent lapse and in the early 2000s Hitachi and Fujitsu launched their biometric vein products. Anatomy has always known that the further away the veins are from the heart, the more variable is their pattern and so, for us, it took a case in 2006 to ask the question about vein patterning that allowed us to bring together the worlds of anatomy and biometrics to show that people could be identified from a variety of anatomical features in their hand, including the vein patterning.
You have hypothesised about ‘mapping memories’. If this could ever work, what ethical questions might it raise?
Like all research, ethical and moral questions need to be at the forefront of drivers for what we do and what we do not do. That’s a very important message that I hope we left with our young audience through the Christmas Lectures [Dame Sue Black was Royal Institution Christmas 2022 lecturer].
We might ask questions such as, Who owns our memories? How reliable are our memories? Can our memories be altered? It was a whimsical thought, but of course Hollywood got there first, and if you watch films such as Minority Report, this gives a great basis for exploring that boundary between private thoughts and actions and the intervention of the state.
During your career, which innovation/s have most transformed the nature of your work?
Unquestionably this would be the introduction of DNA. This has seen a tremendous shift in the identification sector of forensic work. It reduced the number of cases in which a forensic anthropologist might become involved and meant that we were more likely to be deployed in the more challenging cases, where DNA could not assist in the identification. But we saw in last year’s Ri Lectures that DNA evidence doesn’t always provide the absolute certainty that people often assume it does.
What are the limitations of DNA evidence?
Every science does have its limitations. DNA in the forensic context was born out of the incredible work undertaken on medical genetics. It was only in the 1980s that it was translated into a tool that might assist in the investigative arena. We are now able to detect minute quantities of DNA and questions then arise about how much DNA needs to be present to make a meaningful inference about it as a piece of evidence.
For example – if you are in a noisy café, chances are you will shout to be heard. Your DNA will spread in the saliva as you shout. Some of that will land on the people around you. Imagine they leave the café and something bad happens either to them or to someone else in their presence. Your DNA may be present at that scene, yet you have not been.
We have very limited understanding of how DNA transfers from one subject or object to another and we also have a limited understanding of how long it can persist. These are two very important questions if we are to try to understand the presence of DNA from different parties when it is detected at a scene.
Introduction of DNA… reduced the number of cases in which a forensic anthropologist might become involved and meant that we were more likely to be deployed in the more challenging cases
Have advances in technology boosted the effectiveness of the field lab?
Yes, there are many more technologies available to us today, of course, than there were in the past. Our ability to search fingerprints databases at the scene, our ability to detect even small traces of blood, all have an impact. How we record a scene, and even the fact that we moved from film photography to digital photography had enormous benefits. That we can now scan a body prior to a post-mortem gives us greater insight of what we can expect than before.
The increase in forensic science courses around 16 years ago coincided with the popularity of forensic science dramas but not a rise in science applications overall. Should we be concerned?
I think most people are very comfortable that what we see on television, in films or read in books is more about entertainment that it is really about the science, although of course there are many authors and producers who take great care to be as accurate as possible. There is no doubt that forensic courses were very popular in the past but that wave has crashed on the shore and only those who have credibility tend to persist. My advice is always to leave your ‘forensic’ studies to a graduate rather than an undergraduate course of study. Be a scientist first! Always look to a course that can give you a clear indication of likely employability.
Do employers in the sector still prefer chemistry to forensic science degrees?
The advice to anyone who is interested in a career in forensic science is to concentrate on the ‘science’ part rather than the ‘forensic’ part. The latter simply means that the scientist gives their evidence in the courtroom. So, it is always advised to become a good solid scientist first, whether chemist, physicist, mathematician, biologist etc and then to take your expertise into the courtroom.
Which ‘left field’ developments (such as social media, blockchain etc) do you think will impact your work in the years ahead?
There is no doubt that social media has made a huge impact on being able to get the message out to the wider public and that certainly impacts on the intelligence available to investigative forces. The quality and quantity of mobile devices where the public record what is happening around them has also led to great advances in intelligence gathering. I would also add the level of surveillance in our towns and cities through CCTV capability has seen significant benefits. We are all comfortable now with the news footage that shows a suspect walking past different devices at date stamped times, perhaps a CCTV camera up high, a dashcam or perhaps a camera on a doorbell. These are now mundane and every day, and there will be other technological advances or societal changes on the horizon that will have a similar impact.
What aspects of forensic science would benefit from greater digitalisation and less direct human intervention?
I would specifically point to my own team’s work here, in utilising AI to improve the accuracy of human identification from images. AI allows us to identify many more data points than human analysis alone. And sometimes these images and videos are of abuse, and it is very difficult for us to have to look at them and remain unaffected by them. Protection of the well-being of officers and scientists could be greatly enhanced by greater AI intervention.
- Professor Dame Sue Black is one of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists, helping to identify the victims and perpetrators of conflicts and disasters internationally, including as the lead forensic anthropologist to the British Forensic Team in Kosovo. She is currently President of St John’s College, Oxford