Maria Maclennan - ESRC CASE PhD Researcher in Forensic Jewellery

When Maria Maclennan embarked on a General Foundation Art and Design course in 2006, little did she know that her creativity and enquiring mind would lead to ground-breaking work on the role of jewellery in forensic identification. We caught up with Maria to find out more about her passion for this field and her plans for the future. Maria said:

“I moved to Dundee to study the General Foundation Art and Design course at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (DJCAD). I had the intention of becoming a Graphic or Illustrative Designer, however it was the Jewellery and Metal Design programme which really captured my heart.

“I graduated with a 2:1 honours degree in 2010 but despite my love of jewellery, I didn’t feel ready to set up a business on my own so I decided to study the Master of Design programme (now Master of Design for Services) at DJCAD. I can honestly say that this was a life-changing decision.”

Whilst studying the MSc Maria became involved in a fruitful cross-school collaboration. Maria said:

“The course allowed me to develop my design specialism in a whole new way, by applying my skills and experience in jewellery within the specialist arena of forensic science. I worked as part of a team of interdisciplinary researchers at the University’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification (CAHID).

“I helped to develop a standardised international system to describe and classify jewellery belonging to missing persons and victims of mass disasters.  The research was conducted alongside the international European Commission-funded FAST and Efficient International Disaster Victim Identification (FASTID) project, which is part of a consortium research project with INTERPOL and five other partners.

“After working on this project I became hooked on this fascinating new area of research. I graduated with Distinction in 2011, and I was lucky enough to receive full funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to pursue ‘Forensic Jewellery’ at PhD level. Having the opportunity to study between two award-winning and international colleges has been a truly unique experience.

“I am the first person to seriously consider the role of jewellery within forensic identification. The histories, traditions and narratives that jewellery can reveal may not mean much to some, but they can also speak volumes to others. This is particularly the case with contemporary jewellers, whom for decades have been concerned with jewellery’s associations with the diverse themes of identity, death and the human body.”

Maria’s significant work on the role of jewellery in forensic identification has led to her involvement in numerous projects across the globe. Maria said:

“I have worked as a Designer and Research Assistant on a broad range of projects linked to both INTERPOL and the Home Office. In addition to a six-month secondment with the College of Policing, I recently completed a one-month deployment to a police mortuary in South Africa following a major disaster.  I worked with a team of specialists helping to identify human remains from jewellery and other items of personal effects.

“Working with the dead can be an incredibly emotive experience. However every remain is a human being; a life, a family, a narrative, and they all deserve the right to an identity, and that is the overbearing emotion in that scenario. You are there to help, and so you do your job to the best of your abilities. It makes it all worthwhile when a victim is identified and you know the family can have a small piece of closure.

“My research has given me the chance to engage with experts from as far afield as New York to New Zealand.  Experts in niche areas are peppered all over the world, and I know that to get the most out of your role as a researcher, you need to be willing to reach out and build international networks, as well as local ones. This is something that the University of Dundee has fully supported me in doing.”

Over the past eight years Maria has completely immersed herself in her academic studies but she has also enjoyed being involved in the accompanying social side. Maria said:

“Dundee is a wonderfully creative and sociable city, with a great sense of community and spirit. It is definitely the people who make Dundee – they are simply fantastic! During my time at here I have met so many incredibly talented and hard-working individuals, from many fields and all walks of life. Every day I’m blown away by the work that they do. It has been an honour to work with individuals who take such pride and respect in the work that they do, and I am continually inspired by each and every one of them.

“Alongside my PhD, I am also working

 towards obtaining a professional postgraduate qualification in Teaching in Higher Education (PG CERT THE). Since 2011 I have been a Visiting Lecturer at DJCAD, having previously worked part-time assisting with the tuition of Jewellery and Metal Design, as well as acting as a Dissertation Supervisor to undergraduate and postgraduate students within the School of Design.

With a move to the U.S on the horizon, Maria is one step closer to her ambition to work for the FBI. Maria said:

“I hope to finish my PhD in 2015, before pursuing a post-doctoral career in research and teaching. I was recently awarded a full fellowship from the Arts and Humanities research Council (AHRC) to study at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. I’m looking forward to relocating to the U.S to take up the three month residency in October. 

“The opportunity to visit the US, meet established scholars, and present my work internationally, will be of insurmountable value to my work. The FBI also has a ‘Jewellery and Gem Theft (JAG)’ division in Washington, so it will be amazing to gain some first-hand insight into the work they do.

“My PhD has confirmed my interest in design-science crossovers, and I have become increasingly fascinated by the areas of Forensic Art and Gemmology. I hope to complete further professional training within these industries and my ultimate pipe dream is to work as a Designer for the FBI or M16. Failing that, I would also love to establish ‘Forensic Jewellery’ as a consultancy business, providing services to law enforcement and the public.


Find out more about the ‘Forensic Jewellery’ project: