Ask a forensic anthropologist - Q&A with Sue Black

2022 Christmas Lecturer Professor Sue Black joined us on Twitter for a live Q&A about her work

Sue Black standing in a lab, wearing blue scrubs and holding her glasses
Photo: Paul Wilkinson

From identifying bodies from a single bone to uncovering information about one's diet from their hair, forensic anthropology is one of the most fascinating fields of science—and certainly one of the most televised.

After the success of her 2022 CHRISTMAS LECTURES, Sue Black joined us on Twitter for a public Q&A, answering questions about her work, the Christmas Lectures, and more.

Check out the highlights below!

@PippyG82 asked: Which case has brought you the biggest amount of satisfaction in helping to resolve it? Or, conversely, which has been your most frustrating unsolved case?

Sue: The most frustrating are those where we have a body but we can't establish an identity or where we know there is a body but we can't find where it is buried. The work in Kosovo probably brought greatest satisfaction.



@incogneeta asked: We started watching your Christmas lectures on catch up yesterday. My son (12yo) asked how you identify which bones belong to which person when they are all found together?

Sue: We do an analysis called MNI – minimum number of individuals. Bones need not to duplicate and they need to fit together.



@dinowise asked: You're really fantastic at communicating really clearly. What's your advice for making science accessible to the public?

Sue: This is something that forensic experts have to learn as we need to convey science in an understandable format to the jury who are members of the public. It takes a lot of practice though.



@Hookean1 asked: What do you think will be the next technological breakthrough which will aid you in your work? Is there anything in the pipeline that excites you and your colleagues?

Sue: Science changes the way we investigate crime all the time. I think the big breakthroughs will come in digital forensics.



@odio_su_tela asked: Aside from yours, whose Christmas Lectures are your favourite? Who is your scicomms hero?

Sue: I am sad to find that the lecture by John Napier is one of the 'lost' lectures. He was inspirational. I am lucky to have Alan Alda as a friend and he is an amazing ambassador for science communication.



@_EmilyC20: If you were to write another book (I hope you are!), what might be the topic?

Sue: I am happiest writing textbooks and currently have 5 projects on the go. They might not all materialise though. But I love writing.



@Dibsna asked: Have you discovered anything that turns the textbook on its head?

Sue: We needed to write the textbook – that turned the field of juvenile osteology on its head (or skull).



@CyrilleCornu asked: I watched one of your past Ri lectures on YouTube where you spoke about using features in the hands (like vein patterns) to identify child sex offenders. How has this project developed since then?

Sue: The research is progressing better than we had dared to hope. Public participation with images of their hands has been incredible.



@MadAnthro asked: I am about to start a Master of Forensic Anthropology and I love your work. Do you have any advice for someone starting out?

Sue: The most challenging aspect of getting into the subject is obtaining experience in the field and, unfortunately, there is no easy answer to it. At the RAI we set up a mentoring system for those practitioners who certify.



@sisanairn asked: At 47, am I too old to study Forensic anthropology?

Sue: I don’t think you are ever too old to follow a passion.



@a_MUS_ED asked: Technology is impressively progressing rapidly but which old/historical forensic technique stands the test of time?

Sue: Locard’s exchange principle underpins everything and as our techniques become more sensitive, we need to remember it.



@Lee_O_Ni asked: Have there been cases where you thought you had a clear picture at the start but then one find changed everything. I could imagine the smallest things having the biggest impact on the investigation.

Sue: We need to keep an open mind on everything and sometimes it is the smallest things that turn out to be pivotal.

More about forensic anthropology

Dying to learn more? Sue delved into all aspects of forensic crime investigation during the 2022 CHRISTMAS LECTURES.

The lectures are live on iPlayer now, and will be accessible worldwide through our website in February/March.

Sue also delivered a fantastic lecture for an adult audience at the Ri, back in 2019. This one is an Ri fan favourite!