My career as a crime and forensic science professor

Professor Ruth Morgan is director at UCL Centre for the Forensic Sciences and Professor of Crime and Forensic Science at UCL.

Picture: Louise Perkins

It was a chilly autumn afternoon, and I was at work and going through the transcript from a murder trial. I had got to the part where the forensic science evidence was presented to the court when I got that feeling of ice in the pit of my stomach.

The evidence was based on two assumptions that hadn’t been tested, and on the basis of that evidence two men were convicted. In that moment I knew that science evidence has the potential to tell us a huge amount, but only if we are able to understand what it means.

Many years later that trial was found to be unsafe, a retrial was ordered and both men exonerated. Only then was the case reopened and the real perpetrator found.

The lightbulb moment

I studied geography at university. One summer I was working on a research project looking to reconstruct a past environment from the clues we could find in the sediments that I’d collected from a giant sand dune in northern Chile.

I was doing the same type of analyses as my supervisor was doing, except he was working on a (now famous) case reconstructing what had happened after a murder and reconstructing events that had taken place over a few days and weeks.

In comparison, the events in the project I was working on took place over a few thousand years!

I was curious and ended up doing a PhD in forensic geoscience to explore the forensic science applications of environmental science.

It brought together my fascination in how the world works and how people interact with their environment, with an application that could make a difference in the real world. Some of the findings from my PhD contributed to that murder trial being found unsafe. I was hooked.

Finding a job

After the PhD I started looking for jobs. I knew that I loved research, but I’d also had the opportunity to teach while I was doing my PhD so I applied for lots of different roles within the university sector, and got a job at UCL.

There was no forensic science at UCL then, so with the help and support of some great colleagues and supportive senior management, I set up the UCL Centre for the Forensic Sciences.

At that time the seriousness of the challenges that forensic science was facing were beginning to come to light with high profile miscarriages of justice hitting the news and the validity of the science being questioned.

The centre was designed to tackle some of the biggest challenges in forensic science by creating a really distinctive interdisciplinary approach that brought together the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

The main challenge

Fast forward to 2020 and we’ve built a research centre that is doing fundamental research to not only plug the significant gaps in forensic science but raise awareness of these gaps.

The main challenge we’re looking at is the interpretation (or misinterpretation) of evidence. This is such an important issue because as technology has developed we are now very good at detecting and analysing the clues we can recover from a crime scene; real life isn’t so far off what you watch on programmes like CSI in that respect. But at the moment we can’t always say what that clue means, which is very different to what we see on TV. 

For example, if we find your DNA on a gun, or gunshot residue on your jacket, it’s not enough for us to know that it is your DNA, or that those particles are gunshot residue. What we really need to know is, did you shoot the gun? Or is it possible that your DNA could have got on the gun in some other way? Our research is beginning to show that it can. That has big implications for what that DNA profile, or what those gunshot residue particles mean, and whether they are relevant.

Challenges in forensic science

We need to know the answers to these kinds of questions for science to be better understood and for science to be able to answer the difficult questions that the justice system needs answering.

For this to happen, great research is the first step. But for that research to make a difference in the real world we need to make sure that people know that these challenges exist in forensic science, that the urgency of addressing them is only increasing, and that we need to act now to make the changes that are needed.

This can be quite challenging, the world is very noisy with lots of really important messages being broadcast. But having opportunities to explain the challenges we face, why they matter, and what we can do to fix them, is a part of my current job that I love.

In the last couple of years, some of the highlights have been giving a TED talk (see above), speaking at innovation conferences, writing and speaking in the media, being the Specialist Adviser to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into forensic science, and becoming part of the World Economic Forum’s Young Scientists. I really do believe that when we work together we can make the world a better place.

My advice

Having a vision that you believe in is really important.

It helps you make decisions about what to aim for next, and it keeps you going when you face the (inevitable) failures.

In fact, the things that haven’t worked over the last few years have taught me so much, and actually inspired new creative approaches to solving those challenges.

Figuring out a way forward can be quite a buzz when you do make that breakthrough (even if the failure at the time is really hard to handle!).

Success is rarely something that ‘just happens’, so having that vision that keeps you persevering is really important.

I’m also very aware that it’s rare for anyone to achieve anything without the help and belief of others. Find those people who inspire you, and don’t be afraid to take a risk and try something new.

You don’t know what you’re brilliant at until you give it a go, and if something doesn’t work out, it’s almost always something that you can learn from and that will make you stronger. I’m incredibly thankful to those who have inspired and supported me in my career so far, and I’m hopeful that I can pay it forward.

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