14 October 2016

Professor Dame Sue Black tells us why she uses the Research Map

Professor Dame Sue Black is the Director of both the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification and the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Dundee.  She is a regular contributor to the Research Map

ell us a little about one of your research projects which you have shared on the Research Map

We added the project "Identification from the hand" to the research Map early in 2014.  This research project arose directly from casework requirement.  In 2006 we assisted the Metropolitan Police Service in the comparison of images of an alleged child sexual abuse recorded on a Skype camera.  Whilst the accused was found not guilty, it was clear that there was a value to developing a hand identification process, but that it would require a strong research background to make it admissible for court purposes and sufficiently robust to withstand intensive scrutiny.   We developed a database of hands recorded both by visible and infra-red light and the main contributors were police officers who were being trained for the national disaster victim identification team (DVI) in Dundee at that time.   Over 500 officers permitted us to record images of their hands, forearms, arms, thighs, legs and feet, permitting the construction of a ground truth database that we could interrogate.

For the hands work, this allowed us to look at features including hand shape, size, nail appearance, superficial vein patterning, position and patterning of isolated patches of skin pigmentation and depigmentation, scars, knuckle skin creases and other such anatomical factors.  The value was that many of these features occur concurrently on the hand yet they form from independent aetiological sources and therefore their combination increases the discriminatory capability of the approach. 

We were part of an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council  funded research programme called Superidentity and also received EU funding from Prevention of and Fight against Crime (ISEC).  With the combination of grant research funding and student research projects, we have built a strong research foundation for the process of anatomical hand comparison that is based in science, supported by peer reviewed communication and tested regularly on known material and case work analysis.  Our next process has to be to automate the extraction of these features from images of hands.  This is challenging as it requires each anatomical feature to be identifiable even when the images are not of high quality. 

The team have worked on many cases and at present around 82% of the cases we take on have resulted in a change of plea.  This was true for the child sex abuse case brought against Jeremy Oketch by Greater Manchester Police last year which resulted in a 15-year prison sentence.  The images of Oketch's hands permitted identification of superficial vein patterns, skin knuckle crease patterns, scars and most telling of all, a heritable condition that was present on the nail of only one finger.  The investigative and scientific team were awarded high police commendations by the Chief Constable.  The work has also been cross examined in court and has assisted with the evidence for successful prosecution in a number of cases. 
This research was shortlisted for the Times Higher Education research project of the year and it formed part of the successful award of the Queen's anniversary prize for higher education. 

Why have you contributed research to the Research Map?

The research map was first brought to my attention by the College of Policing and it is a very sensible approach to ensure that there is a current awareness of the types of research that are currently ongoing within different types of institutions.  Raising awareness is a valuable means of attracting potential research partners, making your research visible to practitioners and investigators and form an active archive of work done.  The strategy for forensic science research in the UK is somewhat haphazard and anything that can be done to crosslink between research groups and end users has to be a valuable undertaking.

Why do you encourage your own students to share summaries of their projects? 

I think this is an excellent idea for longer term research projects as it allows students to have confidence in sharing the work they are doing within a directly applicable landscape and consolidates the rationale that research should be applied and translational. 

To contact Professor Dame Sue Black for further information on her research, email s.m.black@dundee.ac.uk

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