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Solving crimes with soil

Find out how geography graduate Professor Lorna Dawson CBE pioneered the use of soil science in the criminal justice system.

Professor Lorna Dawson CBE
Lorna examining a soil recovered from an item of footwear in a glass Petri dish in the forensic laboratory at the James Hutton Institute. Source: Ross Johnston/Newsline Media.

Developments in soil forensic science in the last 15 years have provided vital evidence for criminal investigations. Edinburgh alumna Professor Lorna Dawson CBE, Principal Soil Scientist at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, has been instrumental in bringing about this progress. This is how her achievements unfolded.

Cross-disciplinary studies

Undergraduate studies at Edinburgh laid the foundations for Professor Dawson’s line of work. She was attracted here by Professor Terry Coppock’s writings on land use - he was the Ogilvie Professor of Human Geography from 1966 to 1986. Her geography degree exposed her to other sciences, proving crucial for her future career.

I was able to study geography along with other subjects such as biology, chemistry, and statistics. This put me in a good position to carry out the cross-disciplinary work I now lead with forensic soil science.

Lorna fondly remembers doing fieldwork as a student. Trips ranged from studying land use, soil distribution and geomorphology in the Angus glens to investigating land capability in Angus, as well as studying the human influence on land at archaeological field sites in Orkney.

She excelled in her studies, winning the Carnegie Medal for fieldwork: “It was lovely to be recognised for my fieldwork and report writing skills at that time. That set me on a route in scientific writing and taught me the importance of clear scientific communication.”

Starting out in soil science

Lorna Dawson in a lab store.
Lorna examining one of the reference soils archived in the Scottish Soil Archive at the James Hutton Institute. Source: Ross Johnston/Newsline Media.

Leaving Edinburgh in 1980, Lorna moved to Aberdeen to undertake a PhD in Soil Science. She is fascinated by the nature of soil as a “matrix of a multitude of biological, chemical and physical processes going on, with geography linking the pedology (soil science) with place.”

She first joined the James Hutton Institute (then the Macaulay Institute of Soil Research) following completion of her PhD. The focus of her research at this time was investigating soil root interactions and developed ways to characterise soil for agriculture and the environment. Having grown up on an arable farm, she found it very worthwhile to help farmers improve the nutritional quality of food, while minimising the impact on the natural environment.

Devising soil methods for criminal investigations

Lorna was then called on by the National Crime Agency (NCA) to develop and test methods of soil characterisation for use in criminal investigations. Working collaboratively with the then Forensic Science Service (FSS) and the NCA, along with police forces and forensic practitioners, she developed approaches that could be used with confidence in criminal case work and built in a system of accreditation to this process.

I developed tools which could be used both in the search phase of a police operation using geographic information systems (GIS) and digital data (using my geography and fieldwork skills) and also presented a way to integrate the data as evidence in court, using a polyphasic analysis approach to enhance evidential value. The field of quantitative forensic soil science was born.

Nevertheless, Lorna realised that to be an Expert Witness in legal proceedings, she would be best to obtain relevant qualifications, and embarked on criminal and civil law studies at Cardiff University.

Communicating science to the public

As well as keeping her own skills and expert knowledge up to date, Lorna is keen to increase the public’s understanding of science in whichever way is appropriate. As an advisor to SEFARI (Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes), Lorna supports strategic developments in the communication of research outputs. She regularly teaches students at both undergraduate and postgraduate level as well as producing material for school children to learn about the importance of soil for the production of food, the environment and for society. She also advises crime writers and film and TV producers to get their forensic facts right:

No high heeled shoes and hair flowing in the wind, just precision, hard work, attention to detail, and painstaking time spent at the lab bench, clarity of thought and clear delivery of evidence in court.

Through more accurate portrayals of forensic soil science in popular culture, Lorna hopes that members of the public serving on juries can know what to expect with evidence presented in court, and understand what it can and cannot deliver to the criminal justice system.

Lorna has worked with crime writers including Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves, Lin Anderson, Alex Gray, Stuart MacBride and Mark Billingham. She has advised on BBC shows Countryfile and Silent Witness and notes that the media focus shift from agriculture and environment to the criminal justice system mirrors her own career path.

Rewarding outcomes

Lorna Dawson at the microscope
Lorna at the microscope, one of her most important tools in soil examination. Source: Ross Johnston/Newsline Media.

Lorna’s expertise in soil and forensic science was recognised in the Queen’s birthday honours in June this year with a CBE and she picked up a Pride of Britain Special Recognition Award in 2017. But the best reward is knowing that her soil sampling and accredited methods are helping to deliver justice in Scotland, the UK and around the world.

Among her high-profile case work are the so-called World’s End Murders, named after the Edinburgh Old Town pub where the two teenage victims were last seen in 1977.

In 2014 I gave evidence in Livingstone Crown Court in the first double jeopardy case in Scotland, which helped the jury decide to find Angus Sinclair guilty of the murder of both girls. I felt proud that my science education from Edinburgh University had assisted in securing justice for Helen and Christine’s families several decades later.

Related Links

Birthday honours for alumni 

Lorna Dawson profile on the James Hutton Institute website (external link)

SEFARI - Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (external link)

Managing the myths – the CSI effect in forensic science (external link)