From conducting Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) in war zones, scenes of crime and mass fatality incidents to being an Expert Advisor in forensic anthropology and archaeology for the National Crime Agency (NCA), our Company Scientific Advisor Dr. Julie Roberts is a highly regarded expert and has made quite the name for herself in the field of forensics. Here, she offers some encouraging advice for aspiring archaeologists and anthropologists looking to break into the industry and reflects on her most memorable cases to date – including overseas deployments and the 2005 London bombings.
When did you first know that you wanted a career in forensics?
“It wasn’t something that I had ever thought of, or originally planned, when I left school. I actually started my professional life as a nurse.
“After I worked as a staff nurse for a while, I decided that I wanted to try something different and study at university (I qualified as a nurse the old-fashioned way through hospital training). I decided to study archaeology and ancient history at the University of Manchester and I found the human remains aspect of it very interesting.
“When I was a nurse I specialised in orthopedics, so I went from looking at the bones of living people to looking at bones in archaeological populations. I wanted to focus on this further, so I went on to study a master’s degree in osteology, palaeopathology and funerary archaeology at the Universities of Bradford and Sheffield.”
How did you come to specialise in forensic anthropology and archaeology?
“After my master’s degree, I was working in traditional archaeology and osteoarchaeology as a self-employed scientist through various commercial units and consultancy work. I then moved up to Scotland where I was doing a lot of work for Glasgow University and their archaeological research division (GUARD). They were set up like a commercial archaeology unit and I ended up doing a lot of bone analysis for them, particularly on cremated remains. Eventually I was employed as a project officer, then a project manager, and was responsible for burial archaeology projects, post-excavation analysis of human remains and later, forensic casework.
“My involvement in forensics came about because GUARD was based opposite Glasgow University’s Department of Forensic Medicine and Science. I got to know the pathologists and they started coming across to me for advice whenever they were dealing with skeletal remains, particularly those of burnt homicide victims.
“I then had the opportunity to go to Kosovo with one of the pathologists as part of the war crime investigations back in the late nineties. Many of the countries involved with the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia sent teams to help with the investigations and I was part of the British team. I also went back for a couple of seasons after that.
“I started to do more and more forensic work in Scotland and one day I received a phone call from Angela Gallop’s company Forensic Alliance (which was later acquired by LGC then EFS). It was the Head of HR asking if I was interested in a job as Team Leader for their Ecology department in Oxfordshire. I accepted the role and worked there for five years before moving across to Cellmark and establishing a forensic anthropology, archaeology and ecology team there. I stayed at Cellmark for almost 10 years before leaving in 2019 to try my hand in academia. I saw a Senior Lecturer position advertised at Liverpool John Moores University, applied for the job and was lucky enough to get it. I enjoyed my time there, but I found that I missed being involved in casework full-time, so in 2021 when I I heard about the opening for a Company Scientific Advisor at Alecto Forensics it seemed like the perfect opportunity– and here we are!”
What’s been the most rewarding aspects of your career?
“I enjoy working on complex cases and I find humanitarian work difficult but rewarding. Anything that’s challenging and involves researching new methods appeals to me.
“I like teaching too. The mentoring aspects of it, helping people progress their careers and making a difference to people’s lives is incredibly satisfying.”
What’s been the most challenging aspect of your career?
“When you’re away from home for a long time it grinds you down a bit… it’s always nice to get back to your own bed. In addition to this, the hours can be really long and quite tiring. We’re in a difficult situation at the moment where there are lots of students graduating with forensic anthropology and forensic archaeology degrees who need to gain practical experience, and there are not enough people to fill the senior positions. One of the key challenges for us as senior scientists is to bring people through and develop the next generation of forensic anthropologists and archaeologists.”
“The job can also be challenging and sometimes frustrating when the correct advice isn’t always sought or followed! Sometimes it can take a lot of diplomatic skills to resolve or rescue a situation.”
How has forensic archaeology and forensic anthropology changed throughout your career?
“It’s definitely become more mainstream, so people in all different lines of work are much more aware of what we can do to help and assist with investigations.
“There is also, quite rightly, more scrutiny around competencies and making sure that people are appropriately qualified to do the job. There’s been a lot of work around professional development and raising standards of practice through organisations such as the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI). In essence, there has been greater professionalisation of the services.”
What’s the most memorable case that you’ve worked on to date?
“There are many cases that stand out to me either because they have been very unusual or particularly emotive. This includes the excavation and repatriation of two British soldiers from Iraq in 2003, finding and identifying the remains of a British hostage in Lebanon in 2009, and the recovery and identification of British soldiers killed in an IED attack in Afghanistan in 2012.
“One of the most memorable cases I worked on in the UK was the excavation of a body from a concrete block – both because of the difficulties in removing it and then the analytical work that followed, trying to figure out how the person had ended up there.
“Large scale DVI operations, such as civilian and military air crashes in Afghanistan, the air crash at Shoreham, and the London bombings in 2005 have also been very challenging. Following on from the London bombings I was asked to do an extra piece of work to assist with the investigation which involved physically reconstructing the remains of the terrorists. This was to provide further information on how they might have detonated the bombs, and what positions they had been in at the time of the explosion.”
What do you think the future holds for forensic archaeology and forensic anthropology?
“I think it’s quite a bright future! We just need to really focus on training young people coming through. It’s not always happening at the moment, mainly because of workloads and there not being sufficient time to mentor and develop graduates and trainees … so we need to solve that problem.
“I’m also really enthusiastic about strengthening the links between commercial providers and universities. This involves engagement and communication surrounding questions that arise during forensic casework and then encouraging universities to work on applied research projects that would help to inform future cases.
“When I was teaching at LJMU I would encourage students to choose final year projects and dissertations which were actually relevant to questions that needed answering which I’d come across during the course of my career. I am now a Visiting Research Fellow at LJMU, which means that I am still involved in student research projects, including PhD theses, so I am very much focused on trying to address ‘real world’ problems in forensic anthropology and archaeology. At the moment I have students researching new ways to identify victims from mass fatality incidents, including migrant populations.
“The other thing that we need to be mindful of now, and going forward, is maintaining levels of awareness of our discipline amongst the police community. Police officers and CSIs move on so those we have previously trained may no longer be there, and they take their knowledge with them. We need to make sure that we continue to provide awareness training for new CSIs, Crime Scene Managers and Police officers so that they know when to call us if they need our specialist skills.
“Ultimately we want people to understand how we can contribute to investigations and what benefits we can bring to cases.”
What do you do at work on a daily basis?
“Since I started at Alecto I’ve been extremely busy with forensic casework, attending crime scenes, going to post-mortems and working in the laboratory.
“Amongst all this I managed to make a start on my job as Company Scientific Advisor and hopefully I will be able to devote more time to this once our new recruits start! Within this role I’m tasked with looking at the quality of the science that we deliver, producing clear development routes for the team, and ensuring that we have the right skill sets in place.
“I want to help our scientists develop their careers within the disciplines of forensic anthropology and archaeology and to progress within the company as a whole. This ties in with the work that I am doing with the RAI and the British Association for Forensic Anthropology (BAFA), which centres around continuing professional development and providing career pathways for those entering the profession.”
What advice to you have to offer for someone new in the industry?
“I would say that they need to get involved with the professional organisations, such as the British Association for Forensic Anthropology (BAFA) and the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI), to help them on the certification pathway.
“With the RAI forensic anthropology graduates can enter the certification scheme at Level Three (FA III) if they have the necessary qualifications and they will then be mentored through to more senior levels (FA II and FA I) . Those qualified in archaeology can become accredited with the Chartered Institute for Archaeology (CIfA) at different levels depending on their experience.
“It’s really difficult, but I would strongly encourage aspiring anthropologists and archaeologists to get practical experience in addition to their studies. There are so many students graduating with degrees in forensic anthropology and archaeology that you have to somehow distinguish yourself from the rest, and the best way you can do that is by getting some experience under your belt.
“There are opportunities out there but a lot of them involve money, so unless you have that disposable income to spend it does become really tough. If you can afford to go to Cyprus for three months to work with the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus (CMP) they have a brilliant programme for students and recent graduates to work both in the field and the laboratory.
“If that type of work is out of reach, getting involved with local archaeology groups in the UK is a great starting point. They have lots of excavations where people can volunteer for free. Within traditional archaeology there are quite a lot of graduate opportunities, so by learning the field skills and doing post-excavation work, you can progress quite quickly.
“Excavating and studying archaeological burials after you graduate is a good route to take because it gives you that depth of knowledge that you don’t have chance to acquire just by attending university field schools (although they obviously help!). It’s all about doing additional things that make you more attractive to an employer.
“There are other good, non-technical life skills that will put you ahead of the competition too, such as being able to speak different languages, IT and managerial skills. Having a driving license is also extremely important.”
How does Alecto Forensics compare to other places that you’ve worked?
“The scientists are far better supported in day to day activities such as administrative tasks, which are taken care of so that scientists can focus on doing their job.
“Alecto are also more forward thinking and flexible with hybrid working. Staff can combine working remotely with working from any of the group offices. There are also good arrangements in place surrounding time off in lieu to assist with work-life balance.”
“Finally, I feel that my experience is valued by Alecto and the wider Forensic Access Group, and that all my suggestions are listened to and given proper consideration. There is also greater visibility of operations company wide and more transparency surrounding decisions by senior management.”