You spend weeks locked in a dark room, watching students as they carry out fingerprint recognition tasks (yes, it is indeed a positively riveting experience), you long for the day when it’s finally over…
After nine months of being cooped up in Leicester, I’d had enough! Only four days after FINALLY ending my active treatment, I was on a plane. Destination: Furrybootstoon, the Granite City, the Silver City by the Sea, the oil capital of Europe, and home to the largest, most vicious and ferocious seagulls known to mankind: Aberdeen.
Entertainingly enough, as the plane landed I noticed that the airport hotel appears to emulate a famous illusion. I found this quite fitting, seeing as this is the place where I developed an interest in studying visual perception.
So, after endless months of possibly some of the most horrible medical treatments available to mankind, I am finally back at work!
And oh my, how things have changed. While I was on medical leave, my department, the School of Psychology, moved from Henry Wellcome Building into the fancy new Centre for Medicine! It’s a (for Leicester’s architectural standards) nice, modern, and apparently very environmentally sustainable building that doesn’t require much energy for heating or cooling.
Now, I’m quite happy with this building. I have a lovely, shiny new office with windows! Yes, windows! I never had these in my old office, and now we have two walls that are pretty much just windows. Nice wide open space, a wonderful view of Victoria Park (which is especially gorgeous when autumn starts painting the leaves). We also have really cool lab spaces.
However, modernity has its drawbacks… one of which is the automatisation of processes. You see, because the new building is so incredibly advanced and environmentally sustainable, you cannot trust mere people to control the lights, blinds, and heating/air conditioning. People are prone to focus on their own needs rather than those of the building as a whole. Therefore, logically, the building is in charge of the lights, blinds, and heating.
And as any avid science fiction fan can imagine, this has…. interesting consequences
“When I’m a grownup, I’ll make so much money that I can have a driver and a cook!” I don’t recall ever saying this, but my sister Kirsten swears, amidst tears of laughter, that I announced this while I was still at primary school. It appears that even early on I was ambitious, not willing to resign myself to a life as a housewife… and maybe a bit lazy. 😉
My plans became a bit more concrete around the age of 11, when I developed an interest in pathology. While all my friends dreamt of becoming singers, actors, or astronauts, I was trying to motivate myself to get through chemistry as I would need good marks to get into a medical programme. What mostly intrigued me was the puzzle-solving element of it: using your knowledge of the human body and your observation of what’s in front of you, in order to figure out what had happened to this person. Books and TV piqued my interest in forensic psychiatry, which then developed into an interest in psychology. The main driver was still solving puzzles, but the tools had expanded to knowledge of the human brain (and, if you’re a Cartesian dualist, mind), and the observation of human behaviour.
I decided to study in Scotland rather than Germany, a) because I had always been consumed by wanderlust, and b) because my mum is from Scotland, and I wanted to discover that part of my identity. I ended up in Aberdeen, the so-called Silver City by the Sea – or “Furrybootstoon” as my uncle from Falkirk referred to it. Having grown up in a rural village in Germany, I immediately fell in love with the international environment at the university.
During the first two years of my degree, we had to take additional classes outside of our main course, to provide us with more freedom and flexibility in our studies. Therefore I also attended some classes in anthropology, statistics, physiology, and genetics. And while I quickly realised that – shock horror – forensic profiling is not as reliable as TV suggests, I did discover my passion for two areas I hadn’t previously considered as part of psychology – neuropsychology, the assessment and rehabilitation of people with brain injuries and neurodegenerative illnesses, and cognitive psychology, the study of mental processes such as language, memory, and perception.
Thanks to my supervisors and mentors, Amelia Hunt, Jasna Martinovic, and Arash Sahraie, I delved into visual perception – how our brains interpret visual information and shape our perception of the world around us based on our experiences and expectations. This is an area that most psychology students hate, as it can get very abstract and theory-based, but I found it fascinating. As Amelia said: “We could be living in the Matrix and not know about it”! It is mind bending to realise how unreliable and susceptible this sense, that we put so much trust into, is. One of the things I especially adore about this area is the challenge of having to find a way to measure something that is essentially intangible – the ‘algorithms’ employed by the human mind. This process requires as much creativity as it does rigor.
After completing my Bachelor’s and Master’s, I’d had enough of theory and wanted to apply my knowledge in the real world. I got a job as a clinical neuropsychologist in a tiny spa village in Northern Germany, where I worked with patients who had experienced strokes, traumatic brain injuries, or neurodegenerative diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis or ALS. While the work was hard, it was incredibly gratifying to see how the theories and research I had learnt about at university made a positive change to these people’s lives; how after just a few weeks of training you could notice definite improvements in their memory, vision, ability to plan and carry out daily activities. At the same time, I was starting to miss research, the opportunity to investigate interesting questions – but I wanted to combine this with applications. That’s what caught my eye about the INTREPID project.
So now I am actually kind of where I wanted to be in my teens – doing psychology with a forensic application. Granted, it’s not forensic psychology in a traditional sense of the word, but it’s really interesting, and whenever I speak with professionals in the field they are keen, share their own ideas, and are more than happy to collaborate.
So where do I go from here? I honestly don’t know. Life is never straightforward. It’s full of hills, valleys, and serpentines, and at times it’s much harder to keep on going than you’d like. But you make some amazing discoveries along the way. And while I have developed decent cooking skills, I still believe I’m gonna get that driver some day soon! 🙂
In the famous book and movie, Kevin is a young boy displaying characteristics commonly associated with sociopaths, who carries out a massacre at his school…
In Germany, Kevin is the boy at school that the teachers dislike. He is likely to come from a lower-class background, with parents who are not well educated and probably unemployed – all traits that are very much frowned upon. Apparently he is likely to be a troublemaker in class, and may even end up more likely to form habits such as smoking.
In my case, Kevin is an invasive ductal carcinoma, a bunch of ever-dividing cells invading not just my breast, but also every aspect of my life.
One of the great things about a project such as INTREPID Forensics, that is interdisciplinary and involves people with various academic backgrounds, is that you get to broaden your horizons. You learn a lot about different subject areas and research approaches – and you sometimes even get to participate in activities you’d have never dreamed about engaging in!
After the buzz and excitement of New York, the next stop on my agenda was Washington, D. C. Lisa, Francisco, and I were going to attend the 1st International Symposium on Forensic Science Error Management, a brilliant opportunity for us to introduce our projects and meet new people.
As you can probably guess, we also used this occasion to explore the political capital of the States a bit: Washington Zoo (which is free), some of the Smithsonian museums (also mostly free), the impressive government buildings along the National Mall: White House, Lincoln Memorial, US Capitol, Archives, various war memorials. Like New York, it felt a bit unreal seeing all those world-famous sights with your own eyes – although the heat and humidity quickly drove home the message that this was for real!
The conference itself was a great experience. It lasted four days, and consisted of talks as well as panel discussions. The keynote speech by Brandon Mayfield was one of my personal highlights, as his story served as a powerful reminder of the impact that errors in forensic science have on people’s lives. We saw some great presentations on current research in fingerprints, digital forensics, DNA, legal studies…. You could also notice a growing interest in human factors – although it did seem to me as though the main focus was on studying human factors in order to reduce or eliminate their effect on human performance, rather than to understand the underlying processes and examine possible advantages of the seemingly irrational and inefficient approach our brains take to information processing and decision-making.
I also got the chance to present my first poster at an international conference! The poster session was in the afternoon, and despite an interesting concurrent panel session we got to speak to a lot of people, and got great feedback on our work. Overall, people at the symposium seemed very friendly and approachable, and we made a lot of good contacts for feedback and collaborations.
And so, buzzing with ideas and unusual doses of sunlight, I headed back to the UK to face the probation review, and prepare for the next trip: PhD summer school in Lausanne…
Arlington, VA, near Pentagon City… Where else would you want the first ‘International Symposium on Forensic Science Error Management – Detection, Measurement and Mitigation’ to take place? From July 20th to 24th, we had the opportunity to attend and present posters at this event. This was a very exciting opportunity for us, as we are both involved in research concerning error detection, measurement and mitigation in fingerprint examination – and here was a whole symposium entirely dedicated to this area of research – situated near the Pentagon and FBI headquarters!
The keynote address was held by Brandon Mayfield, and his former attorney (now legal director of the Innocence Project Oregon) Steven Wax. The way they recounted their story of how Brandon Mayfield was wrongly arrested for supposedly being involved in the 2005 Madrid bombing, made the audience feel as though they were in a theatre. However, it was a real case where FBI fingerprint examiners had wrongly identified a partial fingermark, found on a plastic bag containing detonating devices at the crime scene, as belonging to Brandon Mayfield. Mayfield and Wax took turns, the attorney presenting the investigative procedures which took place at the time, Mayfield portraying how these legal procedures were affecting his work, family and in the end, his life. It was a touching and poignant address, especially as you could feel the lasting effect this experience had on Mayfield.
Further plenary sessions focussed on human factors, the change in attitudes towards error in practice and policy, and the importance of trust and collaboration among academics, forensic practitioners, and the legal profession. The afternoons offered breakout sessions on a variety of different topics, from criminalistics over digital evidence, human factors, lab management, to legal factors, and quality assurance. With so many interesting sessions happening in parallel, it was sometimes very hard to choose which ones to attend!
On the last day of the conference, after learning much about present research and future directions of forensic science error management, we were treated to a moot court presentation. This was held by William Thompson (Dept. of Criminology, Law & Society, University of California-Irvine) and Jason Tully (Public Defender Service of DC, USA), who charmingly convinced the attendees of the benefits of being an expert witness who is prepared and aware of the limits of their field, their knowledge, and the possibility (and impact) of error. Within this presentation, we especially noticed the emphasis laid on issues regarding accreditation within the laboratories, as well as questions regarding the methods used by experts.
Overall the NIST symposium was a very good chance for us to engage with the people who are working in the same field as we are in INTREPID Forensics. It was great to experience the way practitioners from other countries work and think about forensic science, and to make contacts for further collaborations with our projects. It was also interesting to learn that the field of error in forensics is still a big and rather novel area, which requires more innovative research, and needs to be embraced by both academics and practitioners. Let’s see what the future holds!
- Suitcase? – check
- Final draft of probation report sent to supervisors? – check
- Boarding passes printed? – check
- Passport? – check
- Waking up at ridiculous AM in order to take a cab to Birmingham International, fly to Dublin, get through US preclearance (fancy stamps and everything), and board a 7-hour flight to that concrete jungle where dreams are maaade of? – check check check check!