Forensic scientist reaches public through popular TV show

Published 31 January 2013

Xanthe Mallett, a lecturer in the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences at the University of New England, has made her first appearance on Australian free-to-air television screens as the forensic anthropologist presenting History Cold Case, a four part series which sheds light on the history of our forebears.

History Cold Case uses modern forensic science techniques to identify centuries-old human remains. It illuminates 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.”

Dr Mallett 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.

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

The remaining three episodes of History Cold Case are being broadcast on Sundays at 7.30 pm on SBS.