In failure, I look for the positive
and turn it into an experience
doc. RNDr. Petra Urbanová, Ph.D.
Director of the Department of Anthropology
Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Science, Masaryk University
After a Master’s degree in anthropology, Petra Urbanová studied for her Doctorate under dual supervision at the Faculté de Médecine, Université de la Mediterranée, Aix-Marseille II in France, where She habilitated with her thesis on ‘New Dimensions in Forensic Anthropology’. Since then, her work has focused on anthropology and forensic anthropology, specialising in both scientific research and forensic activities in the fields of health care and criminology. Petra currently heads the Laboratory of Morphology and Forensic Anthropology (LaMorFA) and is the Director of the Department of Anthropology at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University.
How did you first become involved in science?
I first gained an interest in scientific research thanks to my parents. Both have a scientific education and, thanks to them, I have always had an interest in scientific disciplines. At the same time, I was interested in humanities-oriented disciplines, such as history or archaeology. At elementary school, I attended a selective class with a mathematical focus, and took part in the Mathematics and Physics Olympiads. At high school, I became more interested in the combination of history and science. I decided to study anthropology, and from the beginning I was interested in the field of biological and physical anthropology. From the beginning of the fourth year, when I chose a topic for my Master's thesis, I focused on creating a histological method for distinguishing animal and human bones with direct application in forensic anthropology. I also began focussing on the use of anthropology in my role as a judicial expert and forensic scientist.
You have been working as the Director of the Laboratory of Morphology and Forensic Anthropology (LaMorFA) for ten years now. What interesting things have you been researching recently?
In recent years, we have focused on topics with significant social overlap. The basic core of our work is focused on non-contact, non-invasive and digital (usually three-dimensional) recording of the human body, whether it of skeletal remains or of a living person. These digitised records are then subject to quantitative morphological analysis in a computer environment. The involvement of new 3D technologies ensures increased objectivity, accuracy and repeatability. For example, the possibility of retrospective control of procedures and results is a necessary precondition for expert evaluation of evidence in forensic sciences. The 3D digital record remains on the computer and it is possible to return to the analysis and re-evaluate it repeatedly. Students can also repeatedly try which procedures they would choose and which conclusions they would reach in each case. In addition to projects focused on population and individual safety from the perspective of the forensic sciences, the laboratory’s research activities have also been guided by societal challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our vision to implement selected non-invasive and contactless procedures based on a 3D body record for verification and validation of personal protective equipment has proven to be not only beneficial, but also desirable and necessary.
In addition to studying for your Doctorate at the Faculté de Médecine of the Université de la Mediterranée in France, you have extensive experience from abroad. Did you observe any differences in the position of women in science compared to the Czech Republic?
The role of women in academia is not easy and support is appropriate. In many countries, a women’s position in the academic environment is a direct reflection of their position in society. In my professional life, I have experienced both extremes. I have seen complete equality, with women holding leadership positions, which was completely natural for the environment, and a situation in which a woman, despite holding the role of coordinator or team leader, was not allowed to negotiate with male partners. The situation in Czech science, as in many other areas, is somewhere in the middle. While I do not see many women in leadership positions around me, I will always be allowed in meetings.
For two years in a row, you went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a member of the mission of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to help local authorities resolve three-year-old cases of armed ethnic conflict and human rights abuses in Kasai Province. What was the experience like for you?
Without a doubt, it was the strongest life experience I have had and it changed my whole view of life’s priorities, working in extreme conditions and personal discomfort. These two years pushed me to my mental and physical limits. At the same time, however, I was able to see parts of the world that remain hidden to most people, places they will never see. I learned many lessons and also gained some emotional scars that will remain with me for a quite a while yet.
What do you consider the greatest success of your career?
Every completed forensic case, published work or implemented project represent milestones that bring personal satisfaction. But these are soon overlooked and, after a while, they are replaced by other successes, failures and frustrations. What I think persists are results that are built over the long-term, with the help of our scientific team and the knowledge that a sense of satisfaction may never come. From this point of view, I consider the activities of our laboratory and the entire institute the greatest success.
What do you think lies behind your success in your scientific career?
Hard work, the kind attitude and help of mentors and good luck.
Since September 2019, you have been the Director of the Department of Anthropology. Both Masaryk University and the Faculty of Science have introduced measures in connection with the HR Award certification process that can help reconcile family and professional life (e.g. home office, flexible working hours, part-time work). As the Director and head of the laboratory, what measures have been put in place help you and your staff manage family and work life successfully?
The academic world is not an ideal environment for working in a managerial position or conducting high-quality research and, at the same time, leading a fully-fledged family or personal life. Prioritisation is a key prerequisite for creating a balance that is sustainable in the long-run. Priorities are arranged differently for each employee. I see my role as a leader mainly in trying to find a compromise that will suit employees but, at the same time, will not affect work performance or disrupt the workplace. The currently established home office working or remote access are two of the possible strategies. In addition, various communication channels help to maintain contacts and links for solving tasks without the need to physically meet or share the workplace. In the past, the ability to take my family with me on long-term work-stays abroad also helped me a lot.
In your opinion, will there be more jobs for forensic anthropologists in the future?
In our country, this branch of anthropology has all the preconditions for further expansion and development. Nowadays, experts from other disciplines contact us to establish cooperative projects. However, experts are busy and few. Many of our graduates go on to work for the Czech Police or in laboratories with a biological focus, while others may go into administration, where they can become project managers. Whichever role they take on, it is a very responsible job, with no room for errors or misconceptions.
How do you cope with stress associated with your work?
One must develop the skill of overcoming unpleasant feelings when solving a crime and forgetting about any unpleasant experiences. For example, interrogating experts in court can be confrontational; nevertheless, it is always necessary to act confidently and be able to defend one's opinion. Also, the degree of responsibility can be very stressful. It's not a job for everyone. However, even in failure, I look for the positive and turn it into experience.
Thanks for your answers.
Translated by Kevin F. Roche