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second careers

Bill Inkster left his long-time dental practice to join the B.C. Coroners Service. The Identification and Disaster Reponse team solved the cases of disembodied feet found in running shoes that washed ashore. The result of suicides or accidents, none of the deaths are believed to be suspicious.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

This story is part of a Second Careers series that looks at people who are making major career changes after 50 – workers who are staying relevant and thriving in today's job market.

As Bill Inkster approached his 61st birthday, he knew he wanted to retire from his long-time dental practice and do something entirely different.

Just how different that something would be – working with a brilliant forensic coroner and helping to solve some of British Columbia's most baffling missing persons' cases – was not exactly what he expected.

Although he'd had a "good kick at the can in dentistry" and found the work fulfilling, "I wasn't ready to do absolutely nothing."

He thought he might become a local community coroner, a part-time occupation that would be interesting, but not take up much more than a week or two each month. He had already used his clinical dental knowledge to help the Vancouver police identify dead bodies, and had even done a pair of courses in forensic odontology and pathology.

Instead, he found himself applying for the full-time position as identification analyst with the British Columbia Coroner's Service, encouraged by its director, Steve Fonseca, a man Dr. Inkster describes as "literally the most brilliant person I have ever known."

More than six years later, Dr. Inkster is now, at 67, acting head of that service's Identification and Disaster Response Unit, with Mr. Fonseca away completing a two-year stint with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon.

Dr. Inkster's new job entails supporting regional coroners and supervising the work of other identification specialists, including DNA and fingerprint experts. That implied learning from the work itself and "common sense," he says.

"You are relying on other experts. I learned DNA on the job, for example, so I can look at DNA reports and pretty much figure them out. But we also have a DNA consultant who writes the report, and is the one who goes to court to support what he finds."

While the work is frequently fascinating, it can also be physically challenging.

"I also respond to scenes where there is complex body removal," he says. "Maybe co-mingling, more than one set of remains, fragmentation, usually to do with burning. I think a lot of people imagine it being very exciting, but what it is, you're on your knees for days, sifting through ashes."

For Dr. Inkster, however, perhaps the most significant aspect of his second career has been his role in helping to build the Identification and Disaster Response Unit. The only one of its kind in Canada, it stores thousands of pieces of information, from both unidentified remains and from close family members of missing persons, on its databases.

Most police services do not keep the DNA and other information belonging to the relatives of missing persons if no identification pans out. But at the IDRU, Dr. Inkster says "anything that can be coded, DNA, dental records, fingerprints, we code and keep. We put it in our database because you never know. We might find remains in a month, in five years, or in 10 years, and we want to be able to match it to them, if it is their loved one."

The database is a model for Canada, he says.

Because of it, police have been able to close the books on an unprecedented number of cold cases, some going as far back as the 1960s.

Among the cases the IDRU has solved is that of the 12 disembodied feet that came ashore in British Columbia between 2007 and 2012. The team figured out that the feet, enclosed in buoyant, air-filled running shoes, simply detached and floated to the surface as bodies decomposed naturally.

"We've been lucky enough to get DNA profiles out of all of them," he says, and identified all but one of the dead. The result of suicides or accidents, none of the deaths are believed to be suspicious.

Figuring out the answers to such puzzles can be exciting. "When we get a cold hit, which doesn't happen every day, on a database, it is the biggest thrill. It's unbelievable."

The rewarding job and his desire to keep learning means Dr. Inkster wants to keep working past the normal retirement age. And while he recognizes that some employers might be reluctant to hire an older worker, in his case, he says, "It honestly didn't even occur to me because I knew I would be fine and I could compete. And I was given a complete fair kick at applying for this job, and panelling for it."

He admits that he was lucky, too. "This is, by any definition, just a dream job for me. To do this kind of work and to have the success we've had."

His advice for the older job-seeker?

Try to plan ahead as much as possible and vest yourself with knowledge from whatever field you might want to pursue later.

"When you get past the stage of wanting to learn, then you're in trouble," he said. "But don't be afraid to take local courses in whatever interests you. These courses are generally tied in with industry and with people who require the expertise that they are producing in those courses."

Mostly, though, he counsels perseverance. "Keep your chin up and keep going. Some employers will not want a young person, because they will want certain life skills that only come with age and experience," he said. "So don't listen to anyone who tells you you're too old, because there's a lot of employers who will want that mature person."