Sixty seconds with a Scientist…
Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls
Lecturer in Forensic Investigation / Research Lead (Centre of Archaeology)
Caroline Sturdy Colls joined Staffordshire University in November 2010. Before that, she taught part-time at the University of Birmingham whilst completing her PhD thesis on Holocaust Archaeology. Here she talks about teaching, research and the things that encouraged her to enter the world of Forensic Science.
What is it that you teach?
At Staffordshire University I teach Forensic Archaeology to undergraduate and postgraduate students. It is a fascinating area of Forensic Science that involves the location of human remains as well as various other aspects of crime scene investigation. Forensic Archaeology helps ensure that justice is done. It can also bring understanding and closure to bereaved families.
What attracted you to Forensic Science?
I have always been fascinated by archaeology and how the discovery and examination of all sorts of different artefacts helps us to better understand our ancestors and the past. To be honest, I originally planned to be an archaeologist. As a forensic archaeologist, however, I offer – and teach - the practical skills that can really help to solve crime.
How do you bring teaching to life?
Staffordshire University has exceptionally good Forensic Science facilities. For example, there is a crime scene house that is used to give students first-hand practical experience of crime scene investigations and demonstrate the importance of preserving evidence. Students are also taught to gather evidence through mock excavations. The University's 'Court of Law' then ensures they gain plenty of practice in giving evidence!
Does your forensics expertise take you out of the University?
I assist several police forces in the search and recovery of buried remains as well as items that have been involved in crime. I am also involved in helping solve cold cases, an area of investigation that I first became interested in when I was training. This work helps in my teaching, as it enables me to bring real life examples and scenarios to the classroom.
What is the focus of your research?
Through working on cold cases, I developed a longstanding interest in helping to re-address the injustices of the past, in particular the Holocaust. This, in turn, led me to develop a non-invasive method of studying potential mass burial sites, a way that is totally respectful of Jewish Burial Law.
As part of my research, I have conducted archaeological surveys at the site of the Treblinka extermination camp in Poland and at Staro Sajmiste, a concentration camp in Serbia. I have also carried out forensic investigations at various occupation sites on the island of Alderney.
What part of your work has been the most rewarding?
Helping teach the next generation of Forensic Scientists is extremely rewarding. My most satisfying work to-date, however, has been at Treblinka where, along with others, I am helping identify the location of hidden graves so that relatives, descendants and the public at large can pay their respects. My work at Treblinka received international media attention when it featured on a Radio 4 documentary entitled: 'The Hidden Graves of the Holocaust'.
Does technology play a part in your research?
Technology is central to my work. This is particularly true in relation to my efforts in helping locate the burial sites of Holocaust victims, where I use geophysical techniques such as Ground Penetrating Radar. Advances in technology are helping us to see a whole new side to what once was considered fact – in many instances we are re-writing history. I hope that through further advances in technology we are able to not only solve more crimes, but also investigate more conflicts from the past.
And finally, why should I study Forensic Science at Staffordshire University?
I know I'm biased, but our new Science Centre shows just how committed we are to providing students with the best possible facilities and learning opportunities. Not only that, but the Science Centre is made up of the friendliest group of people I've had the pleasure of working with. Every single one of them wants our students to succeed. Added to that, on the Forensics team we also have ex-Police Officers and other crime scene professionals. Their considerable expertise brings valuable real-world knowledge to teaching and learning.