Forensic scientist reaches public through popular TV show

Published 08 October 2012

Xanthe Mallett hopes that her appearance on Australian television screens as the forensic anthropologist presenting History Cold Case will inspire young people to explore the problem-solving power of science.

Dr Mallett (pictured here), now a lecturer in criminology at the University of New England, is a well-known personality to millions of people in the UK, where two series of the popular documentary program have appeared on BBC television.

She moved from the UK to Australia early this year to take up her lecturing position at UNE.

History Cold Case shows how the study of centuries-old human remains using modern forensic science techniques can illuminate history by giving a face – and even a name – to people long dead and often forgotten. “When their faces are reconstructed we can at least give them back their identity in that sense,” Dr Mallett said. “And sometimes, using historical records, we can get down to a possible name.”

The four episodes of History Cold Case are being broadcast on Thursdays at 8.30 pm on the BBC Knowledge Channel, with the second episode going to air this week (Thursday 11 October). This is the second series of History Cold Case; Series 1, made in 2010, has already been broadcast in Australia.

Dr Mallett, who is also the presenter of a forensic archaeology series called The Decryptors made for the National Geographic Channel, sees her work for television as part of the “public outreach” side of her work in science. “I want to engage people with science,” she said, “and in the UK I did a lot of work with schools and colleges.” She has continued with this at UNE, where she has conducted practical, science-based activities with visiting groups of schoolchildren.

Before coming to UNE Dr Mallett was a lecturer in the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee in Scotland. While there she was engaged in criminal investigation case work that involved analysing images of child sex abuse found on mobile phones to determine whether or not the owner of the phone was the perpetrator of the abuse. This developed her broader research interest in child sex abuse – particularly the use of the Internet as a distribution mechanism between groups of people involved in child pornography.

“Child sex abuse is a huge problem globally,” she said, “and it’s something we need to tackle head-on by overcoming our reluctance to talk about it.”

At UNE she has already taught a course on the Australian criminal justice system – a tall order for someone newly arrived in this country. But, with her background in the British criminal justice system, she was able to bring fresh perspectives – comparative and historical – to the task.

And next year she will introduce a course on transnational and organised crime to UNE’s criminology degree program, as well as teaching forensic science.