Julia Webb talks forensics to Womens Institute


All the biosciences lecturers have activities outside lectures; it keeps us up to date with current research (enabling us to provide interesting and stimulating lectures), broadens our interests, promotes the university and the biosciences degrees to a wider audience, or our subject matter to an interested crowd.

I have been challenged in the past by working on forensic cases, using pollen and other botanical evidence to help solve crimes. This all started in 2006, and since then I have worked on around 40 different cases, some of which you might recognise from the national news headlines.

The Gloucestershire Federation of Women’s Institutes asked me to talk about this, to a small audience of around 50 members in a village hall. I think the organisers did not take into account how many of the WI enjoy reading crime novels and after several changes of venue as the ticket sales grew, I ended up talking to 315 last Wednesday night at Chosen Hill School in Churchdown!

WI ladies

Luckily for me the school is the old stomping ground of Sally Rogers (Senior Lecturer in Biosciences) and she very kindly agreed to pop by and help me set up the laptop and projector. She battled through the traffic and arrived just in time to save the day. Sally bought her son with her, who after seeing the sea of faces from the front of the hall commented that I must be really famous, probably the best comment of the night!

Nearly 60 years have passed since the first recorded case of the use of forensic palynology (the study of pollen grains and spores in legal cases), although, only since the 1990’s has the technique been used as key evidence in a UK court. Studying the pollen (and other microscopic entities) that have become trapped in a suspect’s clothing can reveal the vegetation (and an indication) of the crime scene, or to link someone or something to a scene of crime, or prove/disprove alibis. In an Austrian case the disappearance of a passenger on a cruise was solved after soil on a suspect’s shoes revealed the possible location of the body. The suspect was so surprised that he confessed and directed the police to where the body was buried (exactly where predicted!).


The talk went down really well. It’s a topic that always gains a lot of interest and the audience, true to form stayed hooked until the end. I was pleased to gain a few laughs from an otherwise fairly gloomy topic. Adam and I (with Criminology Senior Lecturer Jane Monckton-Smith and ex-Gloucestershire Police Head of Major Crime, Tony Adams) have recently published a book on the topic, and I think the WI have just boosted our sales ranking!


Some comments from the evening:

It was a fascinating evening, riveting and so interesting, and to think what such an important role the tiny, invisible pollen grain can play, utterly different from anything previously. As I crept out in the melee I heard so many positive comments about how much it had been enjoyed.”

“What a fantastic evening with a great speaker.”

“Thank you so much for your excellent talk on Wednesday evening. It was fascinating and most enjoyable. I had many positive comments following the talk and quite a number of emails saying how much ladies enjoyed it” 

sue moulds

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