Friday, July 30, 2010

The CSI's Tale

Forensic Science seems to be all the rage these days. Between 2003 and 2008, British universities experienced an jump from 2,191 to 5,664 yearly applicants. This invites the question: why? Well, according to the Skills For Justice (SFJ) quango, television programmes such as CSI, Silent Witness and Waking The Dead have made relatively little contribution to this 160% increase.

Pull the other one. Being a Forensics graduate, I know that this argument is fallacious; as does the Head of Forensics at the University of Chester, an inspirational man called Dr Ian McDowall. SFJ admits that its findings were obtained by the completion of questionnaires, which, as everyone knows, are notoriously unreliable. Many interviewees are less than entirely candid, and this level of qualitative research is often undermined by either potential conflicts of interest or poor wording of the questions themselves.

Looking back, I feel quite privileged, having been able to work with a broad range of students from various corners of the world. We spent more time together throughout that three-year period than we did with our respective families. Naturally, we came to know each other inside out. Most turned out - unlike myself - to be CSI addicts and, consequently, geared their studies towards a career in fieldwork as opposed to laboratory-based disciplines.

My own principal fascination was for Molecular Genetics, especially the methods of extracting DNA from various types of cell and subsequent analysis of its polymorphisms ('many forms'). The ingenuity underpinning this new branch of science is mind-blowing. Google the phrase 'polymerase chain reaction' and you will appreciate my point. It is, in my view, the most powerful asset of modern forensic science: that such conclusive, and highly consequential, evidence can be secured from so little physical material.

Among the Biological Sciences staff, all experts in their own fields, was a CSI and fingerprint specialist who had twenty years' experience at New Scotland Yard. The first time I met him, I thought to myself: 'I bet this guy has a staggering collection of anecdotes.' So he did. Of the ones he saw fit to share, one tickled me purple.

Once, as an inexperienced investigator, Chris had been called to a student residence following an alleged burglary. Being methodical, he began to process the scene room by room, beginning in what he believed could have been the point of entry. In a ground-floor bedroom, shattered glass from the window lay scattered across the carpet. Drawers had been upturned and clothes strewn randomly everywhere. Chris evaluated the mess and set about his work, making detailed notes and sketches and dusting surfaces for finger marks.

Only when the occupant reappeared did Chris realize that he had been wasting his time. The student stated categorically that no one had in fact entered his room. In other words, the place resembled a crime scene before the burglar had even dropped by - broken glass and all. Brilliant.

Those three years were invaluable, both professionally and personally. Word of mouth, alongside popular television shows, will ensure that interest in Forensic Science, and in particular Forensic Biology, continues to grow in the imaginations of tomorrow's aspiring scientists.

In addition to taking First Class Honours, my research was published in Bioscience Horizons, 3(2), pp. 166-178, by Oxford University Press in June of this year.

An edited version of the paper, entitled Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphisms of Mutans Streptococci in Forensic Odontological Analysis, can be found at:

Further details of Forensic Science courses at the University of Chester can be found at:

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

Monday, July 26, 2010

Viva San Roque!

The hilltop town of San Roque in southern Spain is the perfect home from home. Situated in the Cadiz province of Andalucia, it overlooks, from an altitude of 350 feet, both the breathtaking Bay of Algeciras and the hills of North Africa. Most significantly, it lies just five miles north of Gibraltar (Figure 1.1), and this geographical proximity is central to its recent history.

Figure 1.1: Location of San Roque, Andalucia, Spain

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

From 1701 until 1714, the War of the Spanish Succession raged throughout Iberia. The conflict emanated from the plan to unify Spain and France under a single (Bourbon) king. Not surprisingly, such a prospect sent shockwaves throughout the rest of Europe. The dispute began when the childless Charles II, of the House of Habsburg (Austria), left everything to his half-sister's grandson, Philip, who happened, also, to be the son of King Louis XIV of France. Consequently, Philip was crowned King of Spain while being simultaneously eligible to assume the French throne. This was vehemently opposed by, among others, Great Britain, and war became inevitable.
The Holy Roman Emperor, Leopold I, insisted that the Habsburg claim was the more valid. A large coalition was then formed to oppose Louis XIV by defending existing territories and gaining new ones. The Dutch Republic, Portugal, Bavaria and the Duchy of Savoy all had their own interests. Spain itself had divided loyalties, and civil war could not be prevented. Nor was the fighting restricted to Europe. It spread to the Caribbean and other colonies in America both North and South, hence becoming known as 'Queen Anne's War', after the eponymous monarch had become Queen regnant of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1702.
Eventually, Philip did become King (Philip V) of Spain but had to renounce his claim to France and make heavy concessions to the likes of Great Britain. A total of 400,000 people were killed throughout the 13-year conflict.

In 1704, British and Dutch naval forces invaded Gibraltar. The Gibraltarians surrendered within days and were given a stark choice: swear allegiance to the Habsburgs or flee the peninsula. 98% of families refused to acquiesce and left, perhaps confident that they would soon be free to return. Prior to this so-called Exodus of Gibraltar, local men were killed, women abused and religious buildings and artefacts destroyed. Most refugees settled in nearby San Roque. There was no homecoming, so most of them remained there. In 1706, King Philip gave the town its official motto:
Muy Noble y Muy Leal cuidad de San Roque, donde reside la de Gibraltar

This translates as:
'Very Noble and Very Loyal city of San Roque, where Gibraltar lives on.'
Today, San Roque has fewer than 30,000 inhabitants. (Walking through the town's narrow streets and thoroughfares, even this modest figure seems hard to believe.) However, this total might well be breached within the next decade. In the first half of the 2000s, the local population rose by 11%. Clearly, such a rate is unsustainable, as subsequent pressure on its infrastructure and social amenities intensifies. I hope only that the place retains its character, architectural styles and distinctive Andalucian charm.
Everything here is so thoughtfully maintained. San Roque is a jewel of the Andalucian coast and its inhabitants treat it as such. Streets are immaculate, buildings' exteriors are freshly painted and colourful container plants ramble across quaint, wrought iron balconies.
Historical buildings dominate. The neoclassical ermita (chapel), honoured by a statue of Saint Roch, celebrated its bicentenary in 2001. Older still is the parish church of St Mary the Crowned (Figure 1.2). Restaurants and bars are mainly family-run, each atmosphere having evolved naturally over time rather than been hastily contrived by ignorant marketing executives.

Figure 1.2: St Mary the Crowned Parish Church on the Plaza de Armas

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

I remember the first time I visited Venice, Italy. My girlfriend described the experience as being akin to wandering around a huge film set. San Roque is similarly evocative, albeit in a more understated fashion. Much reminds me of the works of American realist painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967). The town appears to encapsulate all that fascinated him as an artist: light reflecting from whitewashed walls; near-deserted streets (Figure 1.3); solitary houses on hillcrests; aloof and introspective figures; simple beauty in the mundane; and sublime detail, fully appreciable only by those wandering nowhere in particular, with all day to get there. Hopper did, in fact, visit Spain, in 1910, but ventured no further south than Madrid. More's the pity: he might have drawn great inspiration from this place.

Figure 1.3: Early morning in San Roque

Copyright 2007 Mirco Rehmeier

By writing so passionately about the town, I ought to point out that I am not paid to do so. I do, nonetheless, admit to a significant degree of personal bias. Some of my ancestors were Spanish - hence the colour of my eyes and hair - and one of them, my greatgrandmother Josepha Maria Moreno (Figure 1.4) was born and raised in San Roque itself in the late nineteenth century. Indeed, the name itself means 'dark and swarthy', mora translating as 'blackberry'. It is probably the Spanish equivalent of 'Brown', which was, funnily enough, the maiden name of my British grandmother.

Figure 1.4: Josepha Maria Moreno of San Roque, Andalucia

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

Currently resident in the town and its satellite villages, there are still several Moreno families, some of whom might well be distant cousins, although I have yet to meet any of them knowingly. According to the Instituto Genealogico e Historico Latino-Americano, the name is commonly found throughout not only Andalucia, but also Santander, La Rioja, Aragon, Castile and Extremadura.

It would be logical to assume that people whose municipality lies at the junction of two continents, three distinct cultures - British, Spanish and Arabic - a sea and an ocean would have strict regard for autonomy and independence. So they do, too. They always have done. The ancient city of Carteya, now Cerro del Prado at the mouth of the river, even went so far as to mint its own coins. Add to that the fact that, three centuries ago, the Spanish were 'ethnically cleansed' from the Gibraltar Peninsula, and it is easy to understand their hostility to external political interference.

This attitude remains potent today, despite Spain being one of the European Union's largest net beneficiaries. The locals possess impressive historical knowledge. Some equate any attempt to construct a pan-European superstate to the re-emergence of the Roman Empire, whereas others view it as un pacto con el diablo - a pact with the Devil - which is widely considered to be a lesser evil! One brooding old man I encountered, over at the wonderfully authentic Bar Torres on the cobbled Plaza de Andalucia, stated that those who sacrifice sovereignty for the promise of economic advantage deserve to lose both - and frequently do. Profound, considering that he was half-drunk. Such a view is commonly held here, and I would find it hard to disagree. In a world awash with mindless compromises and lazy expedients, the Sanroquenos are a principled lot. I salute them and remain proud of my Andalucian heritage.

Es bueno estar aqui!

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery