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A Day in the Life of Professor Sue Black

Most of us hate being woken up by a phone call in the middle of the night, and even more so if it has to do with work, but for Professor Sue Black this is a regular occurrence. Requests for her to identify human remains, or sometimes those resembling a human, can come at any time and from anywhere in the world, from Falkirk to Fiji. Professor Black recently gave a well-attended talk entitled ‘Forensic anthropology and the issue of identity’ at the new Roslin Institute Building. She heads the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee, while also serving as a forensic anthropologist in the UK and many other parts of the world. Before her talk, I was able to ask her a few questions.

She has worked in war-torn countries such as Iraq, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone. She likens this work to an old Martini advert: "any time, any place, anywhere"; never knowing when she will receive a phone call, with a message to have her bags packed and ready to fly out at 5 or 6am the next morning. The enthusiasm in her voice as she talks about this makes it obvious that this is a part of the job she thrives on. She has undertaken some of her work in very dangerous areas, and there are some projects that her team has been unable to return to because of the security risk. She seems unfazed by this aspect of her work, and laughs at the memory of being escorted by the German tank division while working in Kosovo.

When asked about her most exotic deployment, she described two weeks working in Grenada, with the "Famous But Incompetent, FBI". Or at least that was the most exotic location that she was able to tell me about. When I asked the question, she replied with a stare and a long pause before saying there were a number of locations she would never be able to discuss, having signed the Official Secrets Act on many occasions. This sparked my curiosity and it was very hard not to ask more questions.

Professor Black claims that the reason she is doing this job today is because at university she was only good at two things: anatomy and botany. She could not envisage making a living naming plants, so she completed her Honours in anatomy by default. Her absolute fear of rodents caused her to beg the department to find an Honours project that would allow her to avoid them. Thus she came to do her first assignment on bones. She followed this with a PhD, but only because the head of the anatomy department asked her if she wanted to do one. After the PhD she took up a lectureship in London, where a missing persons case led the police to contact the anatomy department at the request of a pathologist fed up with looking at new bones that kept turning up. This started the ball rolling for further work with the police, the Foreign Office and organisations such as the United Nations.

Her work involves travelling to the four corners of the Earth. She gets excited about the prospect of assembling a bag of small bone fragments, even comparing this to Christmas. She loves the adrenaline rush she gets from case work, but her favourite part of the job is working with her students, because, she says "They keep you on your toes." It is encouraging to hear that some people really enjoy this part of their work.

Her talk focused on the difficulties of establishing and assigning identities to individuals, both dead and alive. Her expertise is increasingly sought after by the UK Border Agency, to determine ages of asylum seekers and refugees. Her training also allows her to identify the ages of individuals, sometimes simply from a photograph of an open smile, in cases involving potential child pornography. She points out the misconception that forensic anthropologists work only on bones, because there are any number of things people in her profession can learn long before remains become skeletonised.

It was a pleasure to meet and chat to Professor Black, and an equal pleasure to listen to her talk. The presentation was cut short due to time, but after the talk I heard several people saying they would happily have listened to her for another half hour or more. This is the kind of response that every speaker would aspire to.

Gwen Wathne is a PhD student at the Roslin Institute

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