In conversation with ...

Thomas Ash, the story .

Students Placements

A collaboration of eager students, passionate academics and inspirational Forensic Scientists and Crime scene investigators (CSI), the Lancashire Forensic Science Academy (LFSA) is a pioneering scheme between the Lancashire Constabulary and the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and the Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC). Be it through dissertation projects, CSI shadowing, forensic laboratory placements or having practitioners teach at UCLan, one of the many aims of the collaboration is to enhance the student experience by providing real-world experience.

Each first-year undergraduate who is on a Forensic Science or Policing degree has a one-day shadowing placement as an observer, to get a taste of what being a CSI is like. Second and third years can apply for placements ranging from one week to one month long, through written applications and interviews. As someone with very limited interview experience, it was reassuring to know that I would get feedback but still get the real-world experience from the get-go. After two successful, and petrifying, application processes, I was fortunate enough to secure a CSI and a forensic laboratory placement.

From day one of CSI shadowing, mornings were spent attending volume crime scenes, proving that Forensic Science, in most cases, is better off being practised than theorised. Case documents gave you an insight into what you could expect but, it wasn’t until you arrived at a scene you could fully understand what you were dealing with. You had to be prepared for every fathomable situation and I was constantly reminded that “at the end of the day, it’s just you and the van”.

There was a CSI job we went to in a nursery, which was still fully operational when we were there. The strange men walking around with a torch and a giant metal briefcase (powdering kit) was certainly the centre of attention as we had children glued to our every move during our search for evidence. Luckily for us, one clearly defined footwear mark was present and as if like magic to the children was made visible by powder. The way their eyes lit up and getting perhaps the sincerest thank-you I have received made me remember the first time I saw these techniques and reminded me why I chose this discipline and how far I have come. Plus, being called a real-life Batman by someone easily a third of my age was heart-warming. 

This was a standout moment for me; it highlighted the importance of managing the publics expectations.  You are part of the community you are helping, and you are dealing with victims of crime who may not be in the best frame of mind.  How you phrase questions, body language and tone of voice were all incredibly important; presenting yourself with professionalism and a degree of care. We could have easily asked for privacy but engaging with the public is vital for increasing confidence in Forensic Science and inspiring the next generation of potential Forensic Scientists. In my short time in this discipline, I’ve noticed many misconceptions related to Forensic Science. The ‘CSI effect’ is one of them, in which I am certain I am not alone in having to tell multiple people “no, it does not work as it does in television”. This placement demonstrated to me that it is perfectly acceptable to come out of the scene with no evidence if you can display to the aggrieved that you have done your job. Sometimes, despite what the TV may show, there is no evidence to be found. 

Afternoons were spent practising and honing the skills required for any CSI job such as photography, crime scene management and fingerprint lifting in the LFSA crime scene houses.  With so many techniques to cover at University, and the modules I chose, I personally did not have time to revise these skills, so being able to spend time revising them through this opportunity was clearly beneficial.

The ability to develop my skills from University continued in my monthly placements in the Forensic Investigation Unit, providing assistance with validating the methods used for tool mark analysis in conjunction with the upcoming ISO 171025 accreditation schedule. This was broken down into the evaluation of casting materials, tool mark substrates and microscopy techniques. Working in actual forensic laboratories was a surreal experience and the processes were a lot simpler than I was anticipating and, in some cases, there is no need for complex methods and machinery – an idea that I am keeping in mind during my own work. As the project has implications for Lancashire Constabulary, deadlines were strict, and the standard of work was extremely high. However, this reinforced that my methods of planning and preparation were suitable for this style of work which was a massive boost to my confidence. My confidence further increased when we had the spare time to set up do some mock examinations. Everything we had done so far used a penny, that sits on my desk as a reminder of what I have achieved. Being able to sit down and successfully go through the analysis and interpretation of forensic evidence is something I have done numerous times at University, but the sense of accomplishment was different. As much as I hate to say it, tasks at University have the end result of getting a grade, this time my conclusions felt like they had implications. If this was a real case, I would have been able to present my findings to the required professional standard. 

It was also incredibly interesting to share an office space with Forensic Science Practitioners, and when it was allowed being able to listen to their case discussions. It showed the level of dedication and critical thinking that I need to strive for as well as balancing this with my own wellbeing. To the day I left it surprised me how quickly everybody could turn from being as professional as possible to down to earth when we were on break, something that I noticed I need to improve on. I think it was beneficial for Lancashire Constabulary staff too, having the opportunity to see what the next generation of Forensic Practitioners is capable of and passing down their words of wisdom, whilst getting in new ideas and ways of thinking. The world of Forensic Science is constantly changing to adapt to the unpredictable changes of the public and environment.












During my validation placement, I stayed on-site and witnessed how each team within the Constabulary is intertwined and that clear communication is key since information goes through a lot of people. Every moment of both placements was put to good use and it made me want to reciprocate all the time they have invested into me. Plus, it is simply motivating to know that the areas you could be working in are filled with people you know will be a pleasure to work with. 

It cannot be stressed enough how important having the experience to work in industry settings and being treated like an equal at the same time is. I’m never going to dispute the fantastic job my lecturers have done. They continuously create mock scenes and tasks to test our practical skills. But you start to recognize how your lecturers think and you have rough expectations of what is going to happen during an assessment as there needs to be evidence to some extent for you to be assessed with. 

The work is taxing in a way that the environment
in University will never be able to recreate
and as previously stated,
you really do not know whether or not evidence will be present.
A key idea was never knowing what you are going to expect,
and it puts you on your feet from the second you arrive.  
At University there is a safety net; if you mess up your grade may drop but there are no other consequences. On a scene knowing that if you do not lift a fingerprint properly or you forget to complete part of a CJA label to evidence is gone. There is no going back and the consequences from that one mistake can lead to miscarriages of justice. The importance of taking a step back and considering every option was vital and being aware when you are falling into the traps of confirmation biases. I am normally one for diving headfirst into a task but, I have noticed myself applying the thought processes to my own work; have I considered every possible method? Is there a better way to phrase this sentence? Is there an alternative explanation for this result? The benefit of self-reflection should never be underestimated. It gave me the chance to notice what skills I thought I was lacking, though it turned out I remember a lot more than I initially thought.

The skills I have developed through my work with the LFSA are transferable and the impact this has had on my work in a short time frame has been clear. I think the stand out transferable skill for me is confidence. After my time at the LFSA, I have presented at an international conference, helped teach in undergraduate labs and provided a set of workshops for primary school students about Forensic Science. These are all things that if a year ago you told me I was going to do I would never believe you. 

My experiences highlight that practice and experience are key. I lifted more mock fingerprints and made more tool-mark casts than I ever expected and if I now had to go to a scene and collect these evidence types I would have no hesitation as I have experienced ‘real world’ applications of Forensic Science that few university students have. This idea captures the ideology of the LFSA: combining best practice and experience in academia with that in operational forensic investigation. The services they provide will only improve, especially with the opening of the LFSA’s own laboratories at Lancashire Constabulary at the end of February and much more to come. 

As for me, I am not sure which career route I will take. However, I think the academic route is probably more for me. It plays to my strengths, and I’ve found a real passion for research and teaching through my time at University. I am still keeping my options open especially when my understanding is that jobs in Forensic Science can be quite difficult to obtain, which for someone new to the discipline is quite intimidating. However, my time with the LFSA has reinforced that ... 





My current goal is to finish my Master by Research, at UCLan, which is investigating the standardisation and validation of sharp force trauma in bone. My time with the LFSA has given me plenty of ideas to apply to my research to break the boundary between forensic research and operational application. Whilst completing this degree I’m also in the midst of endeavouring to get my undergraduate dissertation, also sharp force trauma-based, published in a scientific journal as, at this time, I believe it is the best way for me to make an impact in Forensic Science.

The end goal at this point is a PhD, it has been the light at the end of the tunnel for as long as I can remember, but I have always been daunted by the thought. However, with the support of the LFSA and the skills I have developed through my placements, I know this goal is obtainable.


 

"The world of Forensic Science is constantly changing to adapt to the unpredictable changes of the public and environment" 

"Working in real-world situations is different.
The pressure is different. The situations are unpredictable."

"... as long as I have the correct attitude and continue to push myself, no goal is out of reach."

Thomas Ash

At Lancashire Forensic Science Academy, a team of operationally active practitioners within the field of forensic sciences share their regularly tested and examined knowledge with the new generations of professionals during annual students' placements organised with the University of Central Lancashire. The concept of education takes a new dimension of life experience. Learn more about students' placements, initiatives and projects the Academy undertakes.

In conversation with ...

Lancashire Forensic Science Academy 

How much have you enjoyed your placement?

Thomas Ash

I cannot begin to explain how much I have enjoyed my placements. I never expected to learn so much in such short time frames and every moment was rewarding. Everything that I have done with my time at the Academy will only benefit my plans for the future. 

Lancashire Forensic Science Academy 

Can you describe your placement?

Thomas Ash

My 1st Academy experience was a CSI shadowing placement. A week spent following CSI, processing crime scenes and completing workshops to develop scene processing and photography skills. The 2nd was a 4-week long toolmark validation process, working with Forensic Scientists to test a variety of casting materials for accreditation in the area. 

Lancashire Forensic Science Academy 

What skills and benefits have you gained?

Thomas Ash

The main benefit to my placements has been the context and perspective they provided. Being surrounded by current professionals has been a real eye-opener to how the world of forensics works. 

I’ve been able to build massively on the skills I’ve learnt at University. From taking fingerprints at scenes to producing tool mark casts. Being able to practice these with people who use them day in day out meant I was able to speed up the processes and make sure they were perfect each time.

Time with the Academy is not a one-off event. There are multiple placement types up for offer and everybody I’ve worked with has given me contact information so if I ever have any questions I know where to go.

Lancashire Forensic Science Academy 

Would you recommend considering placements?

Thomas Ash

Without hesitation, I would recommend an experience with the Academy. From the insight, it provides to the skills it helps you improve There was never a dull moment and every moment was valuable.

Lancashire Forensic Science Academy 

Can you share your placements' highlights?

Thomas Ash

The highlight of my CSI placement was the opportunity it provided to question working CSI on how they got to their current positions getting as much advice as possible. It really helped me figure out what I want to do in the future and how I’m going to get there. 

My highlight of the validation project was being able to hold and process past forensic evidence. It was quite surreal and a massive boost to my confidence when I could provide correct conclusions to a commonly seen scenario.

Interested in placements?