Shreya Pandey studies MSc Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation at The University of Bradford and tells us about her journey to postgraduate study.
Shreya Pandey, MSc Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation.
Why Bradford? What brought you to Bradford all the way from Canada?
I have been asked these questions countless times. Sometimes the query comes with an undertone of incredulity, sometimes with bewildered amusement. To study, I tell them. To pursue a postgraduate degree, maybe even a PhD. To become a forensic anthropologist.
Forensic Archaeology and Crime Scene Investigation. It’s a mouthful. Uncomfortably long to say out loud. But, it happens to be the rather descriptive title of the Masters in Science degree that I am currently enrolled in at the University of Bradford. It has become apparent to me through my various interactions with people that mine isn’t a commonplace career path. Perhaps this is why my pursuit of it elicits so much interest.
How does one find themselves studying such a subject? Have you always known that you would like to pursue forensic science?
Well… Not quite.
How I became a double major
Once upon a time, I wanted to be a ballerina. I practised barre and pointe every day. I have the ugly feet to prove it. Then, one day, I decided I wasn’t cut out for it. I’d rather be a biologist. I went to high school in Qatar, Oman and finally, Canada, and throughout it all I always enjoyed biology. So, naturally, when I decided to apply for university, it became my declared major. On a whim, I decided to declare more than one major. I thought it would be fun. I looked at the list of offered courses and picked the first one that I didn’t know anything about – anthropology. I expected to finish my first year pursuing both bachelors and drop the one I didn’t like as much. But, fast-forward five years, I suddenly had a BSc and a BA. A double major – go figure!
Towards the end of my undergraduate career, the ‘what am I actually going to do with my degrees’ panic set in. The thing about choosing less traditional career paths is that there is a lot less hand-holding involved. After all, the average career fair isn’t lined up with booths of companies waiting to hire ethnographers, anthropologists, historians and entomologists.
But, should you dare to explore, some of the opportunities that are available are absolutely incredible.
In my case, there were multiple ways in which I could have combined the disciplines of biology and anthropology. Palaeontology, biological anthropology, archaeology, ethnography, museum studies, forensic science. But, these were all just abstract terms. Diving into practical work, in my opinion, is the only way to know if you are cut out for a particular line of work. After all, how was I to know that I wanted to be an anthropologist if I’d never travelled? How would I know I could become involved in forensics if I’d never seen human remains before? How would I be sure I was cut out to become an archaeologist if I’d never been on a dig? I simply couldn’t let these questions go unanswered.
How I became an anthropologist
So, by the time I graduated with my bachelors’ degrees, I had already done actual practical field work in Ciudad de Mexico studying human geography, in Menorca practising classical archaeology, and all over Guatemala as an aspiring forensic anthropologist.
And I absolutely loved it.
Guatemala was life-altering. My first encounter with contemporary human remains was during the uncovering and excavation of a mass grave in a small hillside village. As I used a sharpened chopstick to softly remove dirt from a gaudy belt buckle belonging to a set of male skeletonised human remains, an elderly woman indicated that she recognised the buckle as one she had gifted to her son. Her son was one of the ‘disappeared’; allegedly taken by the army years ago, missing ever since. She claimed that she had been waiting to find his remains so that she could bury him properly, and then finally die and rest in peace herself.
That was a decisive moment for me. Something clicked, and I knew that this is the role I wanted to play. This is who I wanted to be.
Forensic Anthropologist. Human rights. Political crime. Mass graves. All of these abstract terms became a reality.
But, there was another part of me that was suddenly very uncomfortable. There was a level of trust that this woman had placed in me that I felt I did not deserve. I did not feel qualified to be handling the remains of her (alleged) son. I needed to learn more, become more confident in my skills – not just to feel more comfortable as a professional in the field, but to truly be respectful of the communities that I engaged with as an anthropologist, and to do justice (a heavy word, folks) to the victims, to the dead.
How I became a traveller
I began to trace a tentative, but clear trajectory towards a life where I am qualified to work as a forensic anthropologist in areas where human rights violations and political crimes have been committed. I decided I needed to pursue postgraduate studies. I needed to learn about forensic sciences. I needed to learn about bones, pathology, taphonomy, criminal law. I could clearly see the next steps, and almost map out the upcoming years and decades of my life.
Naturally, I panicked. During my undergraduate career, I had the privilege of pursuing a lifestyle that allowed me to travel. I had a bad feeling that postgraduate studies would put a firm full-stop on that. There was so much I still wanted to see and explore! I just wasn’t ready to ‘buckle down’. So, I packed up my life in Canada and for three years, I let cheap flights and visa entry requirements make a bulk of the decisions. I volunteered in Asia and worked in Europe. In the span of five months, I saw three modern world wonders and two ancient ones.
And then, because I wasn’t actually living out a fairytale, I ran out of money.
It was time to put on my big girl pants and replenish the bank account. I decided to sell my soul (aka put my backpack aside) and get a corporate job in Qatar. As I became chained to my office desk, I realised it was time to bring forensic anthropology back into the forefront of my life.
A year later, I had worked, saved my money and applied for postgraduate studies successfully. I returned home to Canada, bade yet another farewell to my loved ones, and began a new chapter.
How I study in Bradford
Did you know that the University of Bradford has an extensive collection of archived human osteological remains? Or that the campus houses multiple, very expensive and powerful microscopy and imaging equipment?
I do. And as a student here, I get to work with them.
Last semester, I volunteered at the bone lab, working with disarticulated skeletal remains. Last week, I got a personal training session on how to use a Transmission Electron Microscope.
Next week, I will get to process a whole faux crime scene with a team of students. Next month, I will appear in a witness box for the first time as part of a mock trial.
I get to learn from professors that are working on projects that I am passionate about. I get to go to lectures and learn things that are interesting to me. Every single day, I have these opportunities. I have access to all of these resources. I have the ability to learn how to use them, how to improve my skills, to get where I want to be.
I share these privileges with a diverse group of my peers. Our professors lecture us in English, and I watch my friends take notes in Mandarin, Greek, Spanish and Arabic. I have celebrated Chinese New Year in Huddersfield, American Thanksgiving in Bradford, International Women’s day in Manchester.
As a University of Bradford ambassador, I’ve had the opportunity to share my love of anthropology and archaeology with prospective students.
So, this is the story, folks. The ‘how’ and the ‘why’.