Eye-opening trip to Guatemala inspires PhD student research


University of Lincoln PhD student Ryan Austin went on an enriching and inspirational trip to Guatemala for his MSc Forensic Anthropology course, and is taking his research back in time to make some historic discoveries of the Guatemalan conflict.

Ryan’s research topic is ‘Identifying the missing; Utilising Strontium Isotopes for Geolocation; the voice of Guatemalas forgotten’ and he will be using Inductively Coupled Plasma- Mass Spectrometry to analyse the remains of individuals involved in the Guatemalan conflict of 1960 – 1996. Using strontium isotope ratios, most specifically strontium 87/86, will allow individuals to be separated based on the areas where they spent their lives.

This for the subject area represents a clear example of a scientific project with a clear humanitarian aim. Ryan will be working alongside the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) in the hope of repatriating those who were disappeared during the troubles. The majority of the attacks were aimed at the indigenous Maya with the Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) reporting that out of the 200,000 reported victims 83% were indigenous.

In terms of identification, when DNA fails many of these communities can be recognised by their clothing whose patterns are characteristic to the area of origin. However in many instances clothing has degraded due to the conditions of the burial such as bug activity and moisture.

Isotopes offer an objective method to determine the areas where these individuals lived during their lifetime. This allows ante-mortem data collection (information regarding a missing person) to be focused to these areas and increases the probability of individuals being reunited with their families and communities.

We will keep you up to date on Ryan’s discoveries as his research continues.

If you’re interested in Postgraduate study, click here to see Ryan explaining why Further Education could be the right choice for you.

Forensic Anthropology students to aid investigations of war crimes

A new postgraduate programme will be the first in the UK to offer students an overseas field module where they will contribute to investigations of war crimes.

As part of the new MSc in Forensic Anthropology at the University of Lincoln, UK, students will have the opportunity to participate in exhumations and see first-hand the work of forensic anthropologists in Guatemala.

Forensic Anthropology involves the analysis and identification of human remains.  People with these skills are becoming increasingly valued during mass grave investigations and disaster recovery.

Specialists Gillian Fowler and Dr Lucy Easthope from Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences will train students in techniques required for effective fieldwork. The course will place particular emphasis on the role of the expert witness and presentation of evidence. The programme also focuses on human rights and the value of forensic anthropology in international criminal investigations.

Gillian is a Forensic Anthropologist with extensive experience working in post-conflict mass grave exhumations, initially in Guatemala and more recently in Afghanistan.

She spent six years with the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala. While there she was involved in the exhumation of mass graves containing victims of the country’s uprising against the military dictatorship in the 1980s.

More recently, Gillian contributed to a special report by the group Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) outlining steps Afghanistan can take to help identify the victims of the country’s 35-year conflict.

Gillian said: “The skills that forensic anthropologists possess are becoming increasingly valued in international criminal and mass fatality investigations. This MSc is responding to the need to train a new generation of anthropologists who can make an important contribution to future investigations of this nature.”

As an expert in mass fatality disasters Dr Easthope has advised governments, corporations and relief agencies in the aftermath of major incidents, including the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand, as well as developing contingency plans, training programmes and exercises with a number of international organisations.

She specialises in mass fatalities planning, disaster victim identification (DVI), community recovery and the care of survivors, the bereaved and the deceased after disaster.

This programme consists of lectures, seminars and practical laboratory sessions with hands-on experience of working with the University’s extensive skeletal collection. Simulated crime scene investigations (including a large mass grave exercise) and ‘mooting’ (simulated court proceedings) also feature. Students will have exclusive use of a dedicated bone laboratory where they can work independently on the University’s extensive skeletal collection to enhance their osteology knowledge, which underpins the work of a forensic anthropologist.

The course makes use of state-of-the-art equipment in the laboratories of the College of Science, including the new multi-million pound Joseph Banks Laboratories which will open in summer 2014.

For more information go to https://www.lincoln.ac.uk/home/course/frsathms/ or contact Gillian Fowler on 01522 886648 or e-mail gfowler@lincoln.ac.uk

Life Sciences lecturer could be called to testify

Life Sciences lecturer Gillian Fowler could be called to testify in the trial of the former military ruler of Guatemala.

The trial against Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity began in Guatemala City on Tuesday, 19 March.

During Mr Rios Montt’s 17-month rule in the 1980s, more than 1,700 indigenous people are thought to have been killed.

Gillian worked as a as a forensic anthropologist for six years at the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG), producing many forensic reports for the Guatemalan Prosecutors Office.

During this time she was the laboratory coordinator, then, identification coordinator, where she was responsible for developing identification procedures using DNA profiles. In Guatemala, Gillian worked on more recent criminal cases, both in the morgue and at outdoor crime scenes, and in mass disaster victim recovery, analysis and identification.

She may be called to give evidence as part of the trial, which the UN says is the first time a former head of state has faced a national court for such crimes.

The former general denies the charges. The trial is expected to last months.

Uncovering human rights abuses

Gillian FowlerFrom blockbuster movies to literature, unearthing the past has long captured our imaginations, but one University of Lincoln academic is using her skills to uncover a more sinister side of human history.

Forensic anthropologist Gillian Fowler (pictured) joined the School of Life Sciences after travelling the world to excavate mass graves. After working in Guatemala exhuming mass graves of victims that disappeared or were killed during Guatemala’s protracted armed conflict, Gillian became involved with a programme in Afghanistan. The programme teaches Afghan nationals the skills they need to investigate and manage mass burial sites themselves, giving them the opportunity to examine their country’s past independently.

Gillian’s research at Lincoln builds on her fieldwork, uncovering the extent of atrocities and trying to tackle the questions they raise. Her work not only bears witness to the victims of conflict but also helps human rights organisations to investigate violations of international humanitarian law.