Real Voices: Patricia Wiltshire
Forensic botanist at the University of Southampton
What does a forensic botanist do?
A forensic botanist applies plant science to legal investigations, with the results potentially being used as evidence in a court of law. This involves identifying whole plants and plant fragments, pollen and spores, which are what we call ‘proxy indicators’ of a place. With enough of these, you can make a mental picture of the kind of place they might have come from. In that way I guide the police when they’re looking for something or assessing the likelihood of someone having been somewhere. I’ve also been able to tell the police how long a body has lain in a place and whether that’s where the person was killed.
What’s an average day like?
There isn’t one. I may be called up by the police, in which case I spend the day in the field looking at things, evaluating and collecting samples. When I’ve got the evidence I go to the laboratory to extract it, analyse it and interpret the results. Then there’s the report writing. If that’s all accepted, I go to court.
How did you train to get this role?
I studied botany, zoology and chemistry at A level, did a botany degree, and worked in environmental reconstruction and archaeology, which was similar to forensic work. One day I got contacted by the police, and it went from there. There’s no degree for it.
What advice would you give to someone looking to work in this field?
It’s not just looking at plants. Anybody working at a crime scene can’t just be a botanist – you have to know about as many organisms as possible and how they interact, as they’re all in populations and communities. Do as broad a degree as possible in the biological sciences. And certainly don’t specialise in molecular subjects and biochemistry – it’s whole-organism biology that’s important.
Can you tell us about the most interesting case you’ve cracked?
Some of the most interesting things I’ve done haven’t been high-profile. Like the theft of copper wire from the railways: I had to ride in the front of a train with the driver to look for habitats down the line. That was fun. However, I’ve also worked on the four big high-profile cases of recent years – such as the murders of the young girls in Soham and the five women in Ipswich.