Your Stories – Meet Isabella

Name: Isabella 

Degree: PhD in laws (Forensic Anthropology) with the School of Law and Justice 

Isabella standing and smiling at the camera while holding a prop human skull with a prop human skeleton standing beside her
Isabella with Derek the skull and Fred the skeleton at her workplace on Callaghan Campus.

What is Forensic Anthropology for those who don’t know? 

It is the study of bones and human decomposition. A Forensic Anthropologists main duty is to detect, recover and assess human remains. Detect where an individual is located if they’ve been buried or involved in a natural disaster, recover those remains through various means and identify the individual by estimating their sex, age, ancestry and height. Have you seen the tv show Bones? That’s essentially what we do. 

Why did you choose this degree? 

I grew up in a rural area where it felt like my only choice was to become a coal miner, teacher, or a lawyer. I chose lawyer but knew straight away it wasn’t for me. I always wanted to work with victims, so I switched to criminology. My criminology courses were taught mostly by forensic anthropologists, one of those was Tori Berezowski (PhD candidate in Forensic Anthropology at UON). It was through listening to her podcasts and lectures I became aware of the career and that’s where my love of forensic anthropology began.   

How did you become an assistant and how long did that last for? 

I emailed Tori and expressed my interest in helping her research project and was fortunate enough to be selected! She needed someone who would be respectful as we were working with real human remains. It was a 20-month project that operated out of Australia’s forensic taphonomy facility or ‘body farm’ that exists at a secret location in Australia. Tori’s research focused on clandestine grave discovery which uses various ground penetrating technologies to detect buried individuals without disturbing the ground. She buried five pig cadavers; two single and one mass grave then surveyed them to see if they could be found and how they changed over time. 

Isabella and Tori walking through a sectioned area in the bush dragging along a ground penetrating radar machine
Isabella working in her research assistance role with Tori Berezowksi using ground penetrating radar to locate covert burials.

Do you have any idea of what you would like to do when you finish your degree? 

Yes, I’m currently teaching into the criminology program here at UON and I love it. Many PhD candidates are encouraged to teach and at 22, it feels like I’m just talking to friends because most students are around my age. My passion though is in humanitarian forensic science. Their job is to aid in recovering, detecting and identifying individuals after a natural disaster or major conflict. There is a high demand for forensic anthropologists to aid in recovery missions such as the Black Friday bushfires here in Australia. 

There are not many forensic anthropologists at the moment, what are the repercussions of that? 

We don’t have many forensic anthropologists in Australia because there aren’t many degrees or courses available. An implication of this is an increase in missing individuals and family members who don’t know where their loved ones are. When people think of forensic science they often think of crime, fingerprinting or DNA analysis but it is so much more than that. 

Why did you decide to do a PhD? 

Traditionally, to get into a PhD you have to do your honours or master’s first. I finished my undergrad last year and an opportunity for a scholarship came up while I was looking into doing honours. My supervisor Xanthe Mallet sent it to me and said why don’t you see if they’ll let you in to a PhD early? So, we put the application together, I included my research proposal and they accepted me, which is crazy, so I went straight from undergrad to PhD. It has been a big step from writing essays to journal articles, but my supervisors have been so supportive. 

Isabella sitting at a bench and smiling at the camera on campus with green grass and bushland in the landscape
Isabella sitting at a bench at Callaghan Campus while talking about her forensic anthropology work.

What is your research on? 

My research compares methods of estimating and individuals sex using the lower jawbone (mandible) when the pelvis isn’t available. The pelvis is the best indicator to determine sex in skeletal remains but in its absence, we need to ensure we have methods available to determine sex when this is all that’s available. I’ll be travelling to Switzerland next year to access their skeletal collection as Australia doesn’t currently have one. Our body farm receives a lot of donors but at this point in time, once an experiment is over or the body decomposes it is given back to the family. This is why we don’t have a skeletal collection of our own. It would be beneficial to allow people to donate their skeletal remains to science, we could really do with a collection here. 

What is your work with the UON Justice Centre? 

University of Newcastle Justice Centre works to try and amend wrongful convictions and misclassifications of death. Basically, we receive correspondence from clients (individuals or their family members who have been found guilty of a crime) and we try to identify their case flaws and get them a more positive outcome.  I’ve been working on a wrongful conviction the last two years for an individual who was accused of murder, but due to multiple complications with their case we are trying to have their matter viewed again and see if there is even enough evidence to convict them. We operate at Callaghan campus but should be moving into NuSpace by the end of the semester.  Its serves as a unique placement or Work Integrated Learning opportunity. 

One thought on “Your Stories – Meet Isabella

  1. Congratulations Isabella. Your chosen field is fascinating, much needed and will bring you great satisfaction along your career path.
    Christine Berry OAM

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