Research should be about exploring the unknown

BSc Geology and MSc Advanced Applied Field Geoscience Field Trip to the Azores_42076.jpg

Dr Duncan Pirrie is Associate Professor of Geology at USW. He leads the Geoscience Research at USW.

His latest book A Guide to Forensic Geology presents the first practical guide for forensic geologists in search and geological trace evidence analysis. It follows international case work experiences and research over the last 25 years for homicide graves, burials associated with serious and organised crime and counter terrorism. 

Describe what you do
As a geologist, my interests are very wide ranging, from understanding fundamental geological processes which shape our planet, through to understanding how we can use our natural resources for the benefit of society in as sustainable way as possible. I am the course leader for the Advanced Applied Field Geoscience Masters, whilst also being a significant contributor to our fantastic Geology and Geology and Geography courses.

What encouraged your interest in this area?
Geology and exploration often go hand in hand – that curiosity about what is round the next corner or over the next mountain range. My interest started at the age of 17 with an expedition to the high Arctic island of Svalbard – the Kingdom of the Ice Bear. After graduating I landed a job with the British Antarctic Survey, working on understanding climate and environmental change leading up to the demise of the dinosaurs at the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event. Fantastic landscapes, rocks which no one else had ever had the opportunity to study, using helicopters, skidoos and ice strengthened ships – I was hooked and set on a journey of discovery.

What’s been the most interesting project?
One highlight was pioneering new methods for the analysis of soils in serious crime forensic investigations. This had led me to assist in over 100 murder investigations.

What have been the highlights of your research?
Much of my work has been about provenance – the scientific understanding of where something has come from. This might be understanding the source of an ancient sediment, but also where raw materials were sourced from for iconic structures such as Stonehenge and Hadrians Wall. Research should be about exploring the unknown. It’s fantastically exciting as you just don’t know what you will find – it’s the same excitement as looking over the next mountain range.

How do students benefit from your research?
Research and indeed commercial consultancy drives home the relevance of our subject – I use this experience to focus on what our students really need to know rather than what a textbook might suggest. By working at the cutting edge, we can ensure that our students have the knowledge and skills that industry needs, allowing their careers to fly.