What drives fire in­ves­ti­ga­tor Pro­fes­sor Ni­amh Nic Daeid?

Fire is an ob­ses­sion that runs in Ni­amh Nic Daéid’s fam­ily. Like her par­ents, she is a ded­i­cated fire in­ves­ti­ga­tor and now, the Gren­fell In­quiry ex­pert wit­ness is driv­ing a revo­lu­tion in foren­sics. She talks to Vicky Al­lan

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Contents -

‘MY ev­i­dence is on record, that’s all I’m go­ing to say about it,” says Pro­fes­sor Ni­amh Nic Daéid, as we sit in a large, bright room at the heart of the Lev­er­hulme Re­search Cen­tre for Foren­sic Science in Dundee, of which she is di­rec­tor.

She is, she ex­plains, re­luc­tant to say more about the fire that rav­aged Gren­fell tower in 2017 than she has al­ready said as ex­pert wit­ness.

Nic Daéid is one of the top ex­perts in fire in­ves­ti­ga­tion in the world. On the Gren­fell in­quiry web­site one can watch footage of her tes­ti­mony and won­der at what it must take to ex­am­ine scenes which to many of us are too hor­ri­fy­ing to look at. Pre­sent­ing the ev­i­dence, she sets out a sci­en­tific story, with no ob­vi­ous emo­tions at­tached, in words that are mea­sured and pre­cise. For in­stance, she says that in her opin­ion, there was “very, very strong ev­i­dence” that the fire started in the “base of the fridge-freezer” of Flat 16.

It makes a strong con­trast with the har­row­ing emo­tions, the heart­break­ing and tragic sto­ries of loss that char­ac­terised some of the in­quiry. Yet, her ev­i­dence is an im­por­tant part of the story of the fire. Some­one has to look at these scenes with this cool, sci­en­tific gaze.

It just so hap­pens that when I meet Nic Daéid, she has a black eye. The non­foren­sic ex­pla­na­tion is that she tripped over in the street, and that the im­pact pushed her glasses into her eye. It’s to her credit that, de­spite the in­jury, she goes ahead with the in­ter­view, and seems lit­tle both­ered about it as we talk.

The Uni­ver­sity of Dundee pro­fes­sor bounds around the Lev­er­hulme cen­tre, show­ing me a room filled with screens and vir­tual re­al­ity head­sets, which is part of a project that will even­tu­ally al­low ex­perts to walk around vir­tual fire scenes cre­ated through the mo­bile phone pho­to­graphs of lo­cal fire in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

She points out a large shiny bell, screwed into the wall, that is rung when any­one has a great idea. She de­scribes the “blah blah blah” cards that peo­ple are en­cour­aged to hold up if any­one is talk­ing too much jar­gon. For this isn’t a con­ven­tional re­search lab.

The Lev­er­hulme is a cen­tre for “dis­rup­tion”, funded to the tune of £10 mil­lion from the Lev­er­hulme Trust. It is ded­i­cated not just to the science of foren­sics, but to re­search­ing, with the ju­di­ciary, the pub­lic and other sci­en­tists, how to make it work out there in the world of the courts.

How, I ask, does she man­age to keep emo­tions at bay dur­ing her work? Af­ter all, she’s been in­volved in a num­ber of hor­rific cases. “I think as foren­sic sci­en­tists we have to put aside emo­tion. There’s an obli­ga­tion on us to do that. We would be do­ing a dis­ser­vice to the peo­ple who have been af­fected by these events if we be­come emo­tion­ally in­volved.”

“I’ve dealt with quite a few cases,” she goes on, “that have in­volved fire deaths and also that have in­volved mur­der cases.” Among these is the study she did into the tragic 2012 house fire which left six chil­dren dead and saw their fa­ther, Mick Philpott, jailed for life for start­ing it.

“These are things that the world finds shock­ing and chal­leng­ing. I tend to com­part­men­talise them, so that I don’t be­come emo­tion­ally in­volved in them. I think many foren­sic prac­ti­tion­ers are like that. And it’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we can’t af­ford to let that emo­tion cloud our judge­ment. And so I would do things in a much more dis­pas­sion­ate way, rather than be­come emo­tion­ally in­volved.”

Nic Daéid, in fact, has been look­ing dis­pas­sion­ately at fire scenes for many years. Her mother, Caro­line, and fa­ther, Diar­muid, were the first pri­vate fire in­ves­ti­ga­tors in Ire­land, where they worked for the civil courts. Like her, they were sci­en­tists, who brought their knowl­edge to the job. “My fa­ther was a chemist,” she says, “and my mother was a botanist.” She and her brother, grow­ing up in Dublin, were ex­posed to the science of fire in­ves­ti­ga­tion from a very young age.

“I re­mem­ber head­ing off down to my grand­par­ents in Kerry,” she re­calls, “and Mum and Dad would stop oc­ca­sion­ally on the way to in­ves­ti­gate a fire. They would take their notes and take pho­to­graphs and do the scene in­ves­ti­ga­tion and we would be left for a cou­ple of hours sat in the car with pack­ets of crisps and sweet­ies to keep us quiet.”

Her par­ents talked about fire in­ves­ti­ga­tion, she says, all the time. “It would,” she ob­serves, “al­ways be the topic of con­ver­sa­tion over the din­ner ta­ble. Mum and Dad would sit and go through pho­to­graphs of the scenes they’d been to and dis­cuss it to­gether, try­ing to work out what would have hap­pened.”

Even now, she says, there’s a joke in her fam­ily, when­ever she and her mother get to­gether, that there’s a count­down to see how long it takes for the two of them to start talk­ing about fires.

“My mum, she’s in her 70s now, but she was still in­ves­ti­gat­ing fires up un­til her late 60s. When we do have our con­ver­sa­tions about fire, she gets fiercely pas­sion­ate about it. As do I.”

Back in her child­hood, she says, a fire in­ves­ti­ga­tor was the “last pos­si­ble thing” she wanted to be. But Nic Daéid didn’t stray that far from the path of her par­ents. She stud­ied chem­istry and math­e­mat­ics at uni­ver­sity. She re­calls that at one point she wanted to do quan­tum me­chan­ics be­cause she found equa­tions very “beau­ti­ful”, but her mother, she says, “quite rightly” con­vinced her to do statis­tics.

“That was a very wise thing. Al­ways lis­ten to your mother.” She then did a PhD in bio-in­or­ganic chem­istry, be­fore go­ing on to get a post as a lec­turer at the Uni­ver­sity of Strath­clyde.

It was a job that in­volved her do­ing a lot of ex­ter­nal teach­ing, and which took her around the world, help­ing her de­velop the ex­ten­sive net­work of con­nec­tions she has now. One of her gifts, she says, has been that she isn’t shy of go­ing up and say­ing hello to peo­ple. “My fa­ther was quite a gre­gar­i­ous char­ac­ter, my mother was as well, and I’ve al­ways fol­lowed suit in that. Mid­dleaged Irish woman, quite likes to talk.”

Nic Daéid, now an ex­pert in both fire in­ves­ti­ga­tion and drug tox­i­col­ogy, gained her pro­fes­sor­ship at Strath­clyde in 2013. “I scraped my­self up the hard graft of academia,” she says. “It was a hard strug­gle. It’s not easy for any­one to reach pro­fes­so­rial heights. It’s a bit more chal­leng­ing for women be­cause we’ve got other draws on our time, but none­the­less I made it.”

She was, she says, the first fe­male pro­fes­sor in the de­part­ment of chem­istry in the his­tory of the Uni­ver­sity of Strath­clyde.

“It was chal­leng­ing to take that jour­ney. And then when I be­came a pro­fes­sor it was equally chal­leng­ing. Be­cause chem­istry tends to be very male­dom­i­nated, and as a fe­male pro­fes­sor of foren­sic science, you’re out on a strange group any­way. You’re con­sid­ered one of those funny peo­ple that blows things up and sets fire to things and works with drugs, and fe­male as well.”

Fund­ing, she says, has al­ways been hard to get for foren­sic science from con­ven­tional av­enues for sci­en­tific re­search. “We’re con­sid­ered ei­ther too ba­sic or too ap­plied. The work that needs to be done, is re­ally chal­leng­ing – and much of it is yet to be done.”

One of the things that has been lack­ing, she ob­serves, is a knowl­edge of

My mum is in her sev­en­ties now, but she was still in­ves­ti­gat­ing fires up un­til her late six­ties. When we have our con­ver­sa­tions about fire, she gets fiercely pas­sion­ate about it. As do I

back­ground lev­els of sub­stances – like for in­stance how much glass might be on the shoes of the av­er­age per­son walk­ing around Dundee. If glass is on the shoes of a sus­pect, in other words, does that mean they broke the win­dow?

“That’s not sexy science and there­fore it isn’t fund­able through con­ven­tional means. But it’s get­ting funded in this project.” In fact, cur­rently ex­actly this ques­tion of how much glass is on peo­ple’s shoes is be­ing re­searched by one of their projects in high schools in Dundee.

IT WAS, how­ever, what hap­pened in 2009 that prob­a­bly most af­fected the course of her ca­reer. For in that year a re­port was pub­lished that rocked foren­sic science in­ter­na­tion­ally. The Fu­ture Of Foren­sic Science In The United States re­port ex­posed a long­sus­pected truth about foren­sic science: that many of the tech­niques used had no un­der­pin­ning foun­da­tional valid science be­hind them. Some few tech­niques – for in­stance DNA anal­y­sis, which the re­port de­scribed as “the gold stan­dard” – were con­sid­ered solid, but many were not.

“This was the case par­tic­u­larly,” says Nic Daéid, “for tech­niques that in­volved pat­tern recog­ni­tion – things that re­lated to phys­i­cal com­par­isons, com­par­ing fin­ger prints to each other, hand­writ­ing, tool marks, tyre prints. It said there’s no science be­hind it what­so­ever.”

Some of the work she was do­ing then was at the more “val­i­dated” science end of things – her work with drug chem­istry. But, she says, a lot of fire in­ves­ti­ga­tion was “very much a black art”.

She was in Amer­ica when the re­port came out, and she re­calls: “This was a real eye-opener and ev­ery­one col­lec­tively took an in­take of breath.”

We are now nearly 10 years on from that re­port, and Nic Daéid has cer­tainly made a con­tri­bu­tion to chang­ing the foren­sic science land­scape, though there is a long way to go. At the heart of that jour­ney has been her friend­ship and work­ing re­la­tion­ship with the foren­sics pi­o­neer Pro­fes­sor Dame Sue Black, who for­merly headed up the Lev­er­hulme Re­search Cen­tre, but has now moved to take up the post of Provost Chan­cel­lor at Lan­caster Uni­ver­sity.

Nic Daéid re­calls that they first met when she per­suaded Black to con­duct a work­shop for the Foren­sic Science So­ci­ety “We hit it off,” she says. “We got on very, very well to­gether from the out­set. Two kin­dred spir­its.”

In fact, many of the things Nic Daéid says seem to echo com­ments I re­call from an in­ter­view I did with Black many years ago. They share an ap­par­ent ob­ses­sive work ethic, for in­stance. Nic Daéid even de­scribes her­self as a “card-car­ry­ing worka­holic”.

“My other half,” she says, “keeps telling me I’m a worka­holic. Very oc­ca­sion­ally I will take a hol­i­day but you have to drag me kick­ing and scream­ing. I have, on oc­ca­sion, gone home to visit my mother and been taken to a fire scene.”

She has no chil­dren. How does she man­age to keep sane in the midst of this in­ten­sity? “I have cats,” she says. “I do like my cats.”

Nic Daéid cred­its her work ethic in part to her Kerry grand­mother, Geral­dine Maguire, a woman with a “strong be­lief in so­cial jus­tice”.

“She was the kind of per­son that would say if you put your mind to some­thing and work hard, then you’ll get there. She also en­cour­aged us to learn from the hard knocks of life.”

One of the ways in which she and Black were kin­dred spir­its, she ob­serves, was their shared be­lief in the need for an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary ap­proach.

THIS was an idea which Nic Daéid orig­i­nally floated in an in­au­gu­ral lec­ture she gave at Strath­clyde, and which Black, then in the au­di­ence, backed. The pair then went on to col­lab­o­rate in or­gan­is­ing a ground-break­ing event at the Royal So­ci­ety in Lon­don, which brought to­gether foren­sic sci­en­tists, se­nior judges and other sci­en­tists, to dis­cuss the prob­lems in that in­ter­face be­tween the courts and foren­sics pro­fes­sion­als. What was dis­cussed at that event, Nic Daéid says, was “the seed corn” of the cen­tre she runs to­day.

An­other of her good friends is Val McDer­mid. She and the crime au­thor first met in the early 2000s when she was look­ing af­ter the writer at a Foren­sic Science So­ci­ety event, and they later worked to­gether when McDer­mid was writ­ing her fac­tual book, Foren­sics: The Anatomy Of Crime, of which a chap­ter is ded­i­cated to Nic Daéid’s work.

The foren­sic sci­en­tist then went on to help McDer­mid with her re­search, and has even in­spired, like Sue Black, a char­ac­ter in her fic­tion. “It’s pretty recog­nis­able when you start to read it,” Nic Daéid says. “A pro­fes­sor of fire and ex­plo­sion in­ves­ti­ga­tion called Sunny O’Brien? But she’s very sweet and Val and I have a strong friend­ship that goes back a long time. She’s very good

My other half keeps telling me I’m a worka­holic. You have to drag me on hol­i­day kick­ing and scream­ing. I have, on oc­ca­sion, gone home to visit my mother and been taken to a fire scene

Our phi­los­o­phy of work­ing to­gether comes out of the Scot­tish En­light­en­ment

for us here.” One of the things that is clear, just from spend­ing time in the Lev­er­hulme cen­tre, is that a lot of fun goes on here, as well as hard work. With its comfy so­fas, “blah blah” cards and giant car­toons on the wall, you would think it was a Sil­i­con Glen start-up rather than an aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion.

That en­tre­pre­neur­ial feel sits well with the cen­tre’s lat­est project, Just Tech, which brings tech­nol­ogy and in­dus­try to­gether to work on de­vel­op­ments in foren­sic science, and re­cently re­ceived £15 mil­lion from the Tay Cities deal.

The place is partly about bring­ing peo­ple from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines to­gether. “Sue and I,” Nic Daéid says, “read a book that de­scribed in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary ‘Medici in­ter­sec­tions’. It comes from the Medici fam­ily, who, in the Re­nais­sance would pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines – artists, writ­ers, sci­en­tists, en­gi­neers, nat­u­ral philoso­phers – to all come to­gether, in a space where they could work to­gether to solve a prob­lem. And that’s what we do. We bring peo­ple to­gether.”

This cen­tre in Dundee is at the heart of a revo­lu­tion in foren­sic science – why does she think it’s hap­pen­ing here in Scot­land? “For me it goes back to how Scot­land has or­gan­ised her­self. We have one pros­e­cu­to­rial ser­vice. We have a sin­gle po­lice force – that’s im­por­tant. We have a sin­gle foren­sic science lab­o­ra­tory that’s not a com­mer­cially driven en­tity. All of the labs in Eng­land and Wales are now com­mer­cially driven and their mar­ket­place is com­pletely pri­va­tised.”

But, she says, there is more to it than just that. “It’s partly our phi­los­o­phy of work­ing to­gether, which comes out in part of the Scot­tish En­light­en­ment. The En­light­en­ment here emerged in a dif­fer­ent way than it did Eng­land and Wales and France and else­where, be­cause in­stead of just hav­ing sci­en­tists and nat­u­ral philoso­phers work­ing to­gether to solve prob­lems we also had artists and writ­ers and po­ets and we brought them all to­gether in sort of a rammy.”

She couldn’t, she adds, imag­ine the Lev­er­hulme Re­search Cen­tre for Foren­sic Science be­ing any­where other than Scot­land. “I also,” she adds, “couldn’t ac­tu­ally en­vis­age it be­ing any­where other than Dundee. It wouldn’t fit prop­erly in the cen­tral belt. It needed to be off-cen­tre. Be­cause it is off-cen­tre.”

Just as, I sug­gest, she is. “Oh, quite def­i­nitely,” she agrees.

Pho­to­graphs (from below left): fire in­ves­ti­ga­tor Pro­fes­sor Ni­amh Nic Daéid; the af­ter­math of the Gren­fell Tower fire; the scene of the tragic 2012 house fire which left six chil­dren dead and Mick Philpott, who was jailed for life for start­ing it, pic­tured with his wife Mairead

Au­thor Val McDer­mid: theirs is ‘a strong friend­ship that goes back a long time’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.