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Xanthe Mallett

BSc Archaeological Sciences 2002,
Senior Lecturer in Forensic Criminology at the University of New England, Author and Television Presenter

Xanthe Mallett

After graduating from Bradford in 2002 Xanthe Mallett has established herself as a leading forensic anthropologist, criminologist and television presenter. She is a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Criminology at the University of New England and, alongside teaching and inspiring students in the lecture theatre, has undertaken casework and research specialising in human craniofacial biometrics and hand identification, and behaviour patterns of paedophiles, particularly online. In her professional capacity she has helped to solve a number of high profile cases that gained national and international press coverage and in which paedophiles were successfully prosecuted partially as a result of hand comparison evidence.

Xanthe is not your ordinary academic. She is a celebrity in her own right and can be found sharing her insights and knowledge with the masses on-screen as a television presenter. She has featured in a number of programmes in the UK, Australia and the US including working as a forensic anthropologist on the BBC2 series History Cold Case; presenting the Australian equivalent of Crimewatch, Wanted; and co-hosting Coast Australia. In 2014, she presented a television special, Mothers Who Murder, on Australian television, which coincided with the release of her book. She also regularly contributes to news stories and is an active member of the community involved in educational outreach, aiming to engage young people with the basic STEM sciences and encouraging uptake throughout educational careers and on in to industry.

In an in-depth interview with the Alumni Office Xanthe discusses the challenges of balancing her dual academic and media roles and explains why she moved from archaeology and anthropology into forensic criminology and how the fields are intertwined. She also talks about her career and television highlights, and reveals how her Bradford degree was instrumental in helping to inspire her academic ambitions.

What attracted you to come to the University of Bradford to study Archaeology?

“People have always fascinated me; so I was drawn to the study of anthropology and archaeology, which are allied disciplines that help us to understand similarities and differences between populations and individuals. The Archaeology Department at the University of Bradford had an excellent reputation when I was researching where to study, so it was a natural choice, and I felt very fortunate to be learning from some of the world’s best researchers.”

What was your fondest memory from your time at Bradford?

“It has to be the friends I made and the time we spent together; studying, partying, commiserating, stressing. All aspects of studying at University and, for many of us, being away from home for the first time. The bonds you make during those times are very special. And the friends you make really are friends for life”

How did you get into television work?

“I was very fortunate in that I had known my first boss-to-be through my involvement with the British Association for Human Identification, a forensic human identification group. I was the student representative, and my first boss, Professor Sue Black, was the founder of the organisation. Sue became my mentor and good friend, and ultimately offered me my first lectureship, straight out of PhD, which was very fortunate.

I joined the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID), University of Dundee, in 2007, and in 2009 a production company contacted the Centre and presented a proposal for a television series, based on the work we did in CAHID. This idea was successfully pitched to the BBC, and in 2010 we made series one of History Cold Case, which focussed on applying all of the forensic techniques to archaeological specimens to see how much we could learn about them. This wasn’t the first request the Centre had had from production companies, but the reason we decided to go ahead on this occasion was that, as a forensic science centre, we were concerned with the effect television programs were having on young people, in that they no longer believed they needed to study or understand the basic sciences in order to become forensic scientists.

We had seen a drop in the standard of science qualifications for students applying to enter our degrees, and that was worrying us for the future of forensic science in the UK. So we decided to do a television program that would highlight what forensic science could really achieve, rather than what people were seeing on Bones or CSI. The first series was very successful, and promoted the benefits of studying science to audiences of two million viewers per week, so we made series two in 2011. The BBC also allowed National Geographic to follow the same format, and I also presented that – re-titled to The Decrypters (because the US already has ‘Cold Case’, a fictional crime format) – so I got to travel all over the US researching the lives and deaths of four archaeological cases. An amazing experience.

So, to cut a long story short, getting in to television was a complete accident, but now I love engaging with public audiences and see my television work as an extension of my teaching; it doesn’t matter if I’m engaging 200 students in a lecture theatre, or two million via television, it’s still sharing information for the purposes of learning, so all in a day’s work.”

Why did you decide to relocate to Australia to take up your current role as Senior Lecturer in Forensic Criminology at the University of New England, and what does your work at the UNE involve?

“I first visited Australia in 1996, for an extended holiday. I felt very at home straight away, and knew then that I would live here one day. It took me a number of years, but eventually I got here.

I loved working in Scotland, but after five years I felt it was time to spread my academic and personal wings and so began looking for positions in forensic anthropology in Australia. I soon discovered however that my discipline was not as developed in Australia as in the UK, so there were few jobs available. That was not the end of my search, however, as I was already considering moving into behavioural sciences, and so I accepted a position in forensic criminology. People think this is a huge shift, but to me the two are halves of the same thing – to understand the forensic evidence of a crime scene you have to understand how the people at that scene interacted with it and each other (often a victim and offender, but maybe also witnesses etc.). So now I combine forensic anthropology with forensic criminology, and both augment my understanding of the other.

Day to day my work at UNE is varied. Originally I was based at the main campus in Armidale, but in 2013 I relocated to the Sydney campus in Parramatta, west of Sydney city centre. This move enabled me to take on an engagement and outreach role, which sees me work with the local council and schools and businesses, building the University’s reputation and inspiring young people to take science subjects at school, as well as media outlets developing and producing educational projects. I also teach criminology and forensic science, and undertake research in forensic human identification as well as child maltreatment.”

How does the field of Forensic Criminology differ to that of Forensic Anthropology?

“Forensics literally means ‘pertaining to the court’, so anything forensic means that it has an application to court processes. You can have a ‘forensic’ anything, as long as the expert provides evidence for court – so, for example, an engineer may prepare a report on a bridge collapse as part of a civil or criminal prosecution. That would be classed as forensic engineering.

Although forensic criminology and forensic anthropology are allied disciplines, in that both deal with evidence that is used in court, they are very different. Forensic criminology is based in the social science of criminology, which is the study of crime and patterns of crime. Forensic anthropology, is based in the discipline of physical anthropology, and is best described as the analysis of human remains (and sometimes living people) for the medico-legal purpose of establishing identity. The two disciplines really come in to play at different stages of an investigation – a forensic criminologist can offer the police information about the potential offender or likely victims, as well as helping to understand crime data trends after the event, whereas a forensic anthropologist will be called in when an analysis of remains or a living person is required that is outside the expertise and training of a forensic pathologist or other forensic expert.

For example, a common time when the skills of a forensic anthropologist would assist the police would be when skeletonized remains are found, and the police have no clues as to who the deceased person is (i.e. there is no paperwork associated with the remains that could provide a potential name for the person, and they were found outside and not therefore associated with a house or car).

It is not uncommon for bones to be found, animals die outside all the time, and people (often dog walkers!) come across bones and don’t know if they are looking at a natural animal death or something more sinister. So even before identifying human remains, the very first question the police ask when bones are found is: Are they human? A forensic anthropologist is trained to recognize and identify every human bone in every stage of development, and will be able to reliably inform the police right at the beginning of an investigation if the bones are human or animal (which of course has huge implications for the investigation).
So my being involved with both disciplines is an example of a social science (forensic criminology) and a hard science (forensic anthropology) being brought together to help reach a positive result.”

You have continued with television work alongside your day job as an academic. Tell us a bit about the programmes you have been involved with. Do you enjoy working in the media?

“When I moved to Australia in 2012 I did wonder if my role as science communicator in the media was at an end, but as you rightly point out, really it was just the beginning. Just after I arrived I was introduced to a production company in Sydney who asked me, if I could (in theory) choose any television series format to make, what would it be? No hesitation, I said “Crimewatch, from the UK”.

Xanthe Mallett I grew up on Crimewatch, anyone who has lived long in the UK knows it is an institution. I had trained to help solve current crimes and I wanted the programmes I do to have a real social value. To actually help people by helping the police. Well, sometimes the stars align, and the production company happened to be, at that exact time, in discussions with Network Ten (a free-to-air Channel on Australian television) about a true crime series, which ultimately became Wanted in 2013 – Australia’s version of Crimewatch. It was all very fortuitous; the program got funded, or ‘greenlit’ as we say in television, and I was selected as one of the hosts. It ran for 13 weeks in 2013, and over those weeks help to directly solve 16 serious crimes, as well as assisting in dozens of others. It is my career highlight to date, the program – and social impact – I am most proud of.

In 2013 I was also approached to co-host Australia’s version of the popular UK format, Coast. Imagine, I had just arrived in Australia and someone said, “Would you like to travel around Australia, visiting some of the most spectacular and remote locations?” And this is WORK. Clearly, I jumped at the chance, and I filmed Coast Australia series in 2013 and series two in 2014.

Since then I have helped produce and present a news special for Network Ten on my book, Mothers who Murder: And infamous miscarriages of justice (Penguin Random House, 2014), which was an amazing opportunity to share my research in criminology with a huge audience. Another career highlight.

I am currently working with ABC (a public broadcaster equivalent to the UK’s BBC) on a couple of true crime projects, but I can’t say anymore – otherwise I would have to kill you, and trust me, I know how! So with any luck, I should be back on Australian television screens later this year.”

What are the challenges in balancing your media work with your academic goals?

“The challenges of balancing a full academic profile and media career are huge, but one trick I’ve learnt is to maximise every opportunity – so when I wrote my book, I also leveraged that academic output to secure a significant media opportunity in the form of the Network Ten news special on the topic, which also led to various other television and radio interviews. In that way, I disseminated my research through a number of avenues, reaching a far bigger audience than any one outlet could have reached in isolation.

It’s no trick, but it is hard to get in to media. I fell in to it by accident, and learnt as a result that people seem to warm to my communication style, so since then opportunities have kept coming my way. It’s not for everyone, but if you are a natural communicator, and enjoy sharing knowledge and learning from other people, it can be one way to engage big groups of people with issues you are passionate about.

I won’t lie and say all of my academic colleagues have always been supportive, because they haven’t. That’s one of the biggest hurdles I had to learn to get over – the criticisms of those I worked with and colleagues in my field. Some people think that academics should stay in their lane, do their research, teach if they have to, and share their findings with their colleagues through journal papers and presentations at conference. That’s all fine, if that’s what they want to do. But I’ve always done things my way, no compromising, and I’m not going to change; as the only person I need to satisfy professionally is me. And I love what I do, so I’ve developed a thick skin, a good sense of humour, and an ability to see the silver lining in every cloud.”

Where do you stand when it comes to issues around academics engaging with the media in terms of disseminating knowledge - is this something you feel needs to be promoted and encouraged more?

“I could not stress strongly enough that academics and researchers need to engage with the public more. I’ve heard all the complaints about having to ‘dumb down’ research finding and information for the public, and how that’s somehow ‘beneath’ academics. Rubbish. We are fundamentally teachers – of each other, and students, of ourselves, and frankly the public (who in the end pays the taxes that fund our research) – so if we can’t make what we do accessible to the average person, that says more about our communication skills than the IQ of the people listening.

People who work in Universities are to my mind public servants, our research is meant to improve people’s lives, that’s why we get research grants. So, in my opinion we are duty bound to share what we learn with people, everyone not just the select few we deem worthy, and to stop being patronising and pretending ‘the pubic’ is too stupid to understand what we do.

It’s time we all came down from our ivory towers and make our research accessible and interesting to the people who will benefit most from it. Rant over.”

You join a growing list of archaeology graduates of Bradford that have shaped successful careers in their fields and also in the media. What impact did your Bradford degree have on you personally and professionally?

“My time at Bradford gave me an excellent grounding in theoretical and practical aspects of archaeological sciences, osteology, and through the excellent tutoring I received during my Honours project, a great introduction to the fantastic world of research. It was the love of research I found during my Honours year that led me to undertake a research Masters at the University of Cambridge, and eventually a PhD. Without the support and guidance I received from the lecturers in the Archaeology Department, I would never have embarked on a career as an academic.

On a personal level, as a result of the experience I had as an undergraduate, I realised just how impactful lecturers can be on the potential careers and aspirations of their students. So the influence my time at Bradford had on me was far greater than myself; the staff in the Archaeology Department showed me the right way to teach, the right way to engage and inspire the next generation of thinkers. I still try to emulate the way my undergraduate lecturers behaved, to try and give all of my students as wonderful and positive an experience as I had.”

You obviously lead a very busy professional life. How do you unwind and relax? What is it like living in Australia and do you ever take time to revisit the UK?

“Unwind and relax? Well, to be honest I am not good at taking time off. I have no work life balance. And whilst I am not advocating living and breathing work, the reason I do think about my job all the time is because I love it. I go to bed with a notebook next to me, so that I can jot down any thoughts that occur to me in the night – my brain NEVER stops working. But no one forces me to be like this, I wouldn’t know how to slow down, and I’m happy just the way I am.

I do take time out to spend with my dogs, I love walking them and playing with them. Spending time with them seems to wash away all my stress and gives my brain a break. I am a passionate animal enthusiast. My husband and I have rescued many dogs through various agencies, and I raise money for the RSPCA whenever possible. Next up is the Cupcake Day for the RSPCA on the 15th of August 2016 (https://rspcacupcakeday-nsw2016.everydayhero.com/au/xanthe), but anyone who knows me well – or who knows my baking skills – would sponsor me NOT to bake as I am no natural in the kitchen.

I also enjoy running, which in Australia is a pleasure due to the warm days and almost constant sunshine. I live in Sydney, which I think has the perfect climate – not too hot in summer, or cold in winter. These days I shiver if the temperature dips below 20oC, which is going to be a challenge later this year when I leave a gorgeous Australian summer and come back to a UK winter. I try to get back to the UK once every 12-18 months, and once you’ve done the trip a few times it doesn’t feel like such a long journey anymore.”

What are your immediate and future plans?

“My immediate plans are to develop more opportunities to engage the public with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) research and outputs – to show the importance and impact of these fields on people’s everyday lives. And at the same time encourage school pupils to maintain the STEM subjects throughout school and on in to tertiary education. That’s also my long-term ambition, to be an ambassador and role model for young people interested in science; to show them what they can achieve through hard work and perseverance. I will achieve this through continuing my research in both criminology and forensic science, and sharing that with the public through media and outreach projects, and continue and grow the media internship program I’ve recently initiated at UNE for the science teachers of the future by helping them to develop their communication skills.

Specifically at the moment I am working on two forensic projects – the first aims to increase our knowledge of how the human body decomposes after death to improve methods of forensic human identification, and the second to augment methods of forensic facial recognition through a combination of facial scans and DNA analysis. My research is based at the newly-established Australian Facility for Taphanomic Experimental Research (shortened to AFTER), which is exciting as this is the first forensic research site of this kind outside of the US. The AFTER will revolutionise forensic science in Australia, as researchers from multiple disciplines are working together on collaborative projects – all aimed at increasing the knowledge available for forensic death investigations.

In terms of television, I’m working with ABC (a public broadcaster equivalent to the UK’s BBC) on a couple of true crime projects, but I can’t say anymore – otherwise I would have to kill you, and trust me, I know how! So with any luck, I should be back on Australian television screens later this year.” 

Published: June 2016