Dr Anna Sandiford is a Senior Forensic Science Consultant and Director of The Forensic Group Ltd, New Zealand’s only independent forensic science consultancy.
What do you do on an average work day?
There is no such thing as an average day! That’s what I like about my job – no two days are ever the same. The roles I have range from business management through to re‑examination of items from crime scenes. I also present seminars, lecture on various forensic science courses and write books and articles. In my role as an expert witness I prepare reports mostly in the areas of drink driving and alcohol consumption in sexual assault cases but also on my original area of expertise, pollen analysis.
The majority of my daily life utilises my broad knowledge of forensic expertise and expert witnesses, which I have acquired from being involved in thousands of cases involving a massive range of different types of forensic expertise over the last two decades. It involves reading through criminal cases, examining crime scene and post mortem photographs, discussing forensic science and expert witness issues with lawyers, deciding which experts are required for any particular case, contacting existing or potential experts, arranging reports to be completed for areas that are outside my areas of expertise and checking all reports before they are issued to ensure they reach the required standards.
I travel extensively within New Zealand for work and occasionally overseas, particularly the UK as I still have many forensic science contacts from the six years I spent working there. Networks are critical in my job.
What did you study at school? And after high school?
Along with compulsory maths and English, I studied geology, chemistry, physics, geography and art and pottery at school. I loved the geology field trips, which is the main reason I started it at school, so I did a BSc (Hons) in Geology followed by a year out travelling and then an MSc in Micropalaeontology, which is the study of microfossils and is a degree usually used in the oil and gas exploration industries. I still wasn’t ready to get a job in that industry and with hindsight I realised that I didn’t actually want a job in oil or gas exploration.
Eventually I moved to New Zealand and did a PhD at the University of Auckland examining pollen and volcanic glass to assess the impact of volcanic activity and climate change on the vegetation of the Auckland region over the last one million years. This would have led to a career in academia but I decided that was also not for me and during my PhD write-up I completed a one-year postgraduate course in forensic science: that was my light-bulb moment when I finally found what I wanted as a career. It took a while but it was worth the wait – I love my job and have no problem looking ahead to think that I could still be doing this in 20 years’ time. For me that is a really important question to ask yourself when developing a career: do I want to be doing this until I retire?
Was your study directly related to what you do now?
On the face of it, geology does not seem related to what most people would consider as mainstream forensic science. However, geology involved chemistry, physics, biology, botany and statistics. Studying pollen and microscopic fragments of volcanic glass was one of the most useful parts of my education because understanding how small particles behave in the physical environment and what we can learn from that is a vital part of understanding many aspects of forensic science: transfer and persistence of microscopic traces of material, human or otherwise, are critical in assessing the significance of many types of potential evidence.
My PhD in particular taught me a way of thinking: the subject was secondary to the lateral thinking and analytical skills that I learnt. These days, I have to think like a scientist and a lawyer and the two are often very different in their final goals. Being able to think about an issue from a legal and a scientific perspective is really important in my particular job. Having said that, lawyers sometimes tell me I still think more like a scientist; I want to know how an event occurred and what else could be done to work out what happened whereas they want to know whether or not there are any weaknesses in the scientific evidence as it stands.
What would you like to share with young women who are thinking about their career choices right now?
Studying science will never be a waste of time. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to change your mind about what you want to do – you’re going to be doing it for a long time potentially so you need to want to do it. Keep your options open early on: I regularly receive emails from high school students who say they want to be a forensic scientist when they leave school. I always suggest they do a non-forensic science degree first - they may find that the traumatic aspects of crime don’t suit them and they need to be able to move into something else. Or they might find something else they like more during their science study – forensic science in real life is not like it is on the TV...
What are some of your career highlights so far?
I have worked on some really big cases: the David Bain retrial in 2009, the Mark Lundy retrial in 2015, for example. I also spent five years working on the Teina Pora case with Tim McKinnel of Zavest Private Investigations and am involved in some other high-profile cases that I can’t mention at this stage. Not only are these incredibly fascinating cases from the re-investigation perspective, I also learn a lot from each of them and that knowledge assists with the work I do on the many other contemporaneous cases with which my company has been and is involved.
A culmination of my knowledge acquisition and inside look at major cases led to me be a founding member of the New Zealand Public Interest Project (NZPIP), which is a charity established in 2015 to re-investigate potential miscarriages of justice. We have an excellent team of investigators and lawyers and a very interesting range of historic cases to consider. Few of them will be genuine miscarriages of justice, but there will be some. As a society we have to accept that the criminal legal system occasionally gets it wrong and there should be a process that allows such cases to be properly reassessed – NZPIP is the first step to doing that from the actual start of the original investigation, which is an important point of difference from some other organisations and I am very proud to be involved from the outset. As a forensic scientist, the final outcome of a case (guilty or not guilty) is not the issue; what is important is that the investigation is conducted fully, properly and transparently and any expert witness evidence is fully understood, including its limitations. Science is not infallible and not all experts are competent.
I have written two books: a general interest book about some of my case experiences (Expert Witness, published by Harper Collins) and a text book about the practicalities of forensic science (Forensic science and the law, published by Thomson Reuters). Particularly the latter book has opened professional doors for me to raise the profile of the importance of standards and impartiality in forensic science and the limitations of expert witnesses.
Why do you believe engaging in STEM – whether it’s working in the field, studying it or just educating one’s self around the issues – is important to New Zealand?
I am a great believer in working in an area that interests you as a person: it makes you more motivated, more productive and makes life more enjoyable – we only have one life so we should make the most of it. If someone has an interest in STEM then he or she should feel they can pursue it. Ultimately, it is beneficial to that person and society as a whole if people do jobs they enjoy. New Zealand is a small country and rather than being myopic and insular, we can use our small size and remoteness to our advantage.
Why is it important to have more women working in STEM?
We live in a world that is increasingly dependent on science and technology. That means there is no better time than now for girls to enter into STEM if they are interested. With that will come a greater acceptance of women in STEM. Equality in the workplace has improved over time and will continue to improve as more women are represented in the STEM workforce. In my experience, men and women have different approaches to problem-solving: mixed gender teams are as valuable as inter-disciplinary teams when it comes to developing and implementing ideas.
Dr Anna Sandiford is a Senior Forensic Science Consultant and Director of The Forensic Group Ltd, New Zealand’s only independent forensic science consultancy. She is based in Auckland but works all over the country and occasionally overseas.
This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM.
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