Meet Griffith’s Forensic Anthropologist, Donna MacGregor

To celebrate 2020 International Women’s Day, we would like to introduce you to a remarkable female within the Griffith University School of Environment and Science…. Meet Donna MacGregor.

Often referred to as “the bone lady”, Donna is a forensic anthropologist, police officer and Army reservist who is a Lecturer at Griffith University. Donna is also a Griffith graduate, having competed her Masters of Forensic Science here. She has become one of the most highly-trained experts in human and forensic osteology in the country, working on local cases for the Queensland police and overseas in places such as PNG, Malaysia, and Europe for the Australian Army.

We asked Donna a few questions about her career so far…

What do you love about your job?

What I love most in my job is the variety of work I get to do.  I can be in a lab one day doing research, teaching the next and then in the field or mortuary working on a case the day after. I love that I get to do authentic research that answers knowledge gaps in my field and then apply it directly back into casework. I also love that I get to work in multidisciplinary teams with such a diverse group of people whom are so dedicated and passionate. These people include other forensic specialists, investigators, researchers and students. I am on new to Griffith but already I can see the enthusiasm in the students, and look forward to assisting the other members of the Discipline of Forensic and Archaeology to develop the Forensic Science degree program further and embed more realistic and authentic learning opportunities for the our students. Watch this space…

What is the most outstanding achievement in your career?

​Upon reflection, there has been so many achievements that I look back and find it difficult to rank one of the other, so I will describe a couple. I was a full-time police officer for over 10 years and most of that time was spent as a scientific officer (major crime forensics). The difference between major crime and volume crime forensic examinations is that major crime officers provide opinion evidence in the court of serious offences. These types of offences include the gathering and interpretation of physical and trace evidence relating to homicide, arson, sexual assaults etc.  Volume crime forensic officers attend and collect fingerprints, DNA from stolen cars, break and enters etc. 

In my role as a scientific officer, I remember one of the first times my evidence was a major contributor to the defendant pleading to a murder. I found a piece of glass on the defendants clothing that could be matched to the glass in a hopper window at the primary crime, broken during the offence. The defendant stated that they were never at the crime scene, however my evidence linked them to the scene. They subsequently pleaded to murder when this evidence was put to them. It was small win but memorable to me.

Any other memorable achievements?

I have been involved in some very large scale and protracted crime scene examinations. Most particularly was the Glass house Mountain site in relation to Morcombe case. I spent 6 weeks at this scene.  Most significantly, we found Daniel and were able to return him to his family so they could put to rest 8 years after he went missing. Bringing closure to family is one of the most significant parts of our work. Another significant case was helping to identify the unidentified remains of a human torso located outside Gympie. This case was different to most other homicide investigations, in that it took several months to establish the identity of that person. Using anthropological skills and new techniques developed through one of my masters research projects, I was able to provide a virtual assessment of the persons’ age, sex, and stature to assist the investigators.  

Other career achievements also come from my military work. In 2016 I was part of the Unrecovered War Casualties-Army (UWC-A) team that recovered 33 Australian soldiers, spouses and children from the Terendak Military base in Malaysia. The remains were returned home to Australia as part of Operation Reunite – a joint Australian/Malaysian military operation. Upon arriving home, a few days earlier, the team were part of the arrival ceremony at the Richmond Airforce base when the two C17 Globemasters landed with the bodies. We were in the hanger when the coffins were marched into the awaiting families. To see the emotion of the families 30-40 years after these service members passed away, reinforced the reverence of what our work does to bring the peace and closure to families.

What advice would you give to young women entering the field?

My advice to young women entering this field is to be determined, be respectful and be resilient. A forensic career in any field is hard to get into and then once you are in the experiences you may see or hear can be quite confronting. All these qualities will help to enter the field and then manage yourself to succeed within your chosen forensic field.

Before going down the path of a forensic career ensure that you have researched the area from online forums, official sites etc and where possible attend public forums or presentations. At these forums, or during guest lectures from industry people during your degree at Griffith, engage with the industry specialists and ask questions. As the old adage, “forewarned is forearmed.”