Monday, 13 July 2015


On Friday night, I joined several other 'death professionals' and like-minded academics, in a brilliant public engagement event at the Royal Institution. The event, called 'Life and Death' was one of their series of 'Lates' - adult only, evening events for the public.

There was a great range of interactive exhibits and stands - you could try a 'toxic' cocktail with traces of cyanide or poisonous rhubarb, touch plastinated cat and dog corpses, find out about the most famous inhabitant of St Bart's Pathology Museum, Mr Bellingham, talk to humanoid robots and bring your 'craptop' back to life.

In conjunction with ArtNecro, I was there to introduce unwitting attendees to the joys of the unmistakable smell of decomposition and death, as a result of our research at the Forensic Anthropology Research Group into the volatile organic compounds given off by decomposing cadavers. I talked to the visitors about how decomposition works, and how a different combination of gases are emitted at different stages of the process.

Then it was their turn to sniff the different volatile organic compounds that we had brought along as representative of every stage. Some of the chemicals were surprisingly unoffensive, and some got some tremendous reactions - I wish I could have captured their faces on film!

The attendees were allowed to smell very diluted solutions of hexane, which smells of cut grass and tomatoes, indole, which most people thought smelled of mothballs and old people's homes. They also smelled 2-methyl butanoic acid, which most people thought was the most repulsive, as it honks of cheesy feet and old trainers. Some people objected to the buytric acid, which has a strong odour of vomit. After they had sniffed diluted spray versions of these pure laboratory produced chemicals, I offered them a chance to smell the delightfully named 'pig juice' samples I had brought along from some of our pig-based decomposition experiments, from a pig cadaver that had been buried for a month. Everybody was brave enough to smell it, although some regretted their decision!

I think most visitors enjoyed it. I certainly did, taking perverse pleasure in seeing people's faces scrunch up as they smelled the unforgettable, unmistakable scent of death (#thescentofdeath). Working as I do in taphonomy research and attending crime scenes, I have got used to death's particular odour, and probably smell it almost every day, but it is not something that most people have experience of - luckily for them!

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Scent of Death

I just thought I'd let you know about some forthcoming events this year that all focus around the same theme, of the 'Scent of Death'.

One of my current research interests is the identification of the gaseous products of decomposition of cadavers as a function of time. I currently have an excellent PhD student, Lorna Irish, working on this very problem in the Forensic Anthropology Research Group at Huddersfield University. Lorna's focus is to combine the identification of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are given off as a cadaver (in our case, pig cadavers) decomposes, with an assessment of the performance of dogs trained to detect human remains. Our research has been written about here and here.

Throughout the course of the research, we have discovered that the VOCs given off by a cadaver change as the process of decomposition advances, and that different VOCs are present at different times. This could have important implications for post-mortem interval estimation. I don't want to give too much away, as the results will be published soon.

Over the summer and the autumn, I will be presenting the results of the research in different events. The first event is at the Royal Institution on the 10th July. I will presenting an interactive talk and demonstration about the scent of death and decomposition at one of their 'Lates', adult-only events. This one is entitled 'Life and Death'. More details can be found here.

The second event is the British Science Festival, which this year is being held in Bradford, from the 7th to the 10th of September. I had such a brilliant time last year - see the post - that I cannot wait for this one! Come along and smell the scents if you dare!

The third event is an exhibition to be held at the London School of Medicine in October, hosted by Art Necro. This event is bringing together arts and scientists to present on different aspects of death. I won't say too much, but it promises to be an incredible exhibition.

Aquatic Forensics Group

As some of you may know, I am proud member of the Burial Research Consortium. This is a group of academics from different universities and institutions around the world who are particularly interested in taphonomy research. We have different specialisms within our consortium, ranging from entomologists and anthropologists to geophysicians (if that's the right word) and geologists. The aim is to bring our varied experience, expertise and perspective to joint projects and to improve our understanding of human and animal decomposition, and the interaction between cadavers and the environment, soil and ecology.

We are now proud to announce a new string to our bow - a new 'sister' group to the Burial Research Consortium...the Aquatic Forensics Group. This is a newly formed alliance of academics and practitioners with a shared interest in forensic evidence from water. This includes micro-organisms, diatoms and newer phenomena such as micro-plastics, and their use in a forensic context. We are particularly interested in questions such as the estimation of post-mortem submersion interval, and the use of diatoms for the diagnosis and provenancing of drowning. The new website provides more information about the projects being undertaken by AFG members, and has links to useful resources for those interested in different types of aquatic evidence. Please have a look! Also, feel free to follow @waterforensics on Twitter!

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

New: The Dental Arcade Game

As you know, I am pretty keen on science communication and public engagement. Just in time for British Science Week, I am trying my hand at citizen science, with a new project called the Dental Arcade Game.

Its aim is to improve how forensic anthropologists (and odontologists) determine age at death from dental eruption. Usually what happens is that the anthropologist will chart the erupted teeth (ones that poke out of the gum) and the extent of eruption (how far the tooth has come up to meet the bite surface) of every tooth, and compare this to reference data in the literature to come up with an age range for that set of remains. The problem is that this reference data is quite out of date, and based on very specific populations, and so the age ranges provided may not be accurate.

The aim of this project is to amass a large amount of tooth eruption data (with age, sex and ethnicity) to increase the accuracy and improve the reference data that is used to base these age estimations on.

So...if you're interested, please take part in the survey. You can make a difference to modern forensic science! You can find out more on the Dental Arcade Game website.

To keep up to date with progress, please follow @Dental_Arcade on Twitter.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Australian Human Taphonomy Facility

Happy New Year, lovely readers. I am sorry that I haven't posted since September - no excuse really, just very busy, as usual.

I want to draw your attention, if you're not already aware, to the recent establishment of a Human Taphonomy Facility (colloquially known as a "Body Farm") in Australia.

The idea of "body farms" or outdoor decomposition laboratories for human taphonomy research is not new. There are currently seven such facilities in the United States, and another one newly commissioned. One of the reasons for so many is that decomposition processes are heavily influenced by the surrounding temperature, humidity, species of insect and other environmental conditions, and so forensic scientists need to know how bodies decompose in their region's own particular conditions. This means that the data produced by US facilities is not always relevant or useful for other climates and countries.

The 12 acre facility, called the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), has been created in bush land in the Blue Mountains area outside Sydney, and is intended to aid research into the impact of the Australian climate, fauna and insects on the processes of decomposition. This will prove invaluable for identification of unknown human remains, whether they are victims of homicide, misadventure or disaster.

The initiative has been headed by Professor Shari Forbes from University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), and funded by a Australian Research Council Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) grant. It is a multidisciplinary, collaborative project that unites law enforcement organisations, forensic services and academic institutions. Partners include the Victorian Institute of Forensic MedicineUniversity of WollongongUniversity of SydneyUniversity of CanberraUniversity of New EnglandAustralian National University, as well as Victoria Police, Australian Federal Police, New South Wales Police Department and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization.

The terrain and vegetation are typical of areas commonly searched for human remains, and so it is a good mimic for a crime scene environment. Donated human cadavers will be used for the research, as there is no perfect substitute or analogue for human tissue, body composition and gut bacteria. Shari's research also uses pig cadavers (as we do in the UK at the moment), in order to determine how reliable pigs are as an analogue.

"At the moment, we're still not sure that pigs are the best model," she says, "and this will actually help prove or disprove whether or not pigs can be used as a model of [human] decomposition".

As a result, her research may have dramatic consequences for current forensic taphonomy research in the UK and Europe.

The facility will be used not only to push the boundaries of our knowledge of forensic science, including decomposition chemistry, forensic biology, toxicology, entomology and anthropology; but will also contribute significantly to our understanding of archaeological and geological processes, palaeontology, and soil science.

Personally, I hope that this initiative in Australia will pave the way for acceptance of such a facility among academics, forensic services, government organisations and the public in the UK. I strongly believe that a similar facility is necessary in the UK, as our climate, flora and fauna and environmental conditions vary significantly from the other body farm locations in the US and Australia, and without one, we will not fully understand the complex processes of decomposition and the interaction between human cadavers and the environment.

Monday, 15 September 2014

British Science Festival

I have just come back from the British Science Festival, which was held in Birmingham from the 6th to the 11th September. I was there as a British Science Association Media Fellow, which meant I had access to press conferences and embargoed news, the speakers' lounge and was allowed behind-the-scenes.

I arrived on Sunday, which was the family-orientated 'Community Day'. Birmingham University campus was humming with a carnival atmosphere. There were bouncy castles, flags, clowns, people on stilts, burger vans and ice-cream vans, like a fun-fair; but also more genteel marquees with sofas and potted plants, and canvas deck chairs outside in the sun, giving it a more 'garden party' ambiance. I saw a programmable humanoid robot, a man dressed as a skeleton and several science 'buskers' peddling their wares to enthralled children.

On the Sunday night, I listened to Professor Alice Roberts give a talk about her new book, 'The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being', which, while not new in terms of biology or embryology, was fascinating to watch. She is a compelling speaker and excels at explaining complex concepts in layman's terms. After that, I watched a hugely enjoyable talk by Professor Richard Wiseman, about the science of sleep. I learned that relying on your alarm clock to wake up is a sign of sleep deprivation, and it is best to sleep in multiples of 90 minutes. Between these two talks, I joined the Media Fellows' pub quiz, which obviously made a material difference, because we came second, out of about 25 teams.

On the Monday, the Media Fellows and I attended a press conference about an exciting Citizen Science project: the Big Bumblebee Discovery, which made me think of all the projects I could do... It was rather nice to see Dallas Campbell on the panel too.

I also attended a great session run by my colleagues at the British Association of Biological Anthropologists and Osteoarchaeologists about the bloodiest period in history, comparing the trauma found on skeletons from the Neolithic, Iron Age, Anglo-Saxon period and Medieval. I also saw another Archaeology and Anthropology session, 'The Ape that Walked', which offers an inference about how bipedalism may have evolved from arboreal locomotion on thin wobbly branches.

Overall, I had a fantastic time, not least because of the other Media Fellows in attendance, who are all brilliant, funny and super-intelligent. I came home brimming with ideas for public engagement in science events, large and small, for all ages.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The microbiome of death

Sadly, my Media Fellowship placement at New Scientist has come to an end. But, I rather feel like I have 'gone out with a bang', as my latest article for them is a double-page spread! (Not the same as a centre-fold, to my husband's disappointment!)

You can read it here.

I was very pleased to be able to write about something (a) I know quite a bit about, (b) I'm really interested in and (c) I'm passionate about. A lot of the time, I gather, journalists don't get to chose what they write about, so I was very lucky.

The microbes that colonise cadavers is just up my street, and it was great to interview Professor Peter Noble about his research - although I did have to disturb him during his Caribbean holiday [alright for some!]. He and his team looked at how microbes spread out from the gut and colonised different internal organs of several cadavers, as a function of time. They found that the microbe populations differed more between individuals than between organs, suggesting that colonising microbes may be used to identify people. Then talking to Sibyl Bucheli was really fascinating too, especially as some her research is very closely aligned with mine, and that of the Burial Research Consortium. She voiced certain caveats to the research that I was thinking but couldn't put in without an external reference, so it was very helpful to talk to her. I hope that we may be able to work together on similar projects in the future. And of course, it was wonderful to get some choice comments from BRC's very own Professor John Cassella, an expert in this field.

I really enjoyed seeing all the processes that go into transforming a spark of an idea into a full-blown article, and watch it being tweaked and polished by editors, sub-editors and back to editors again. It was great to see how pictures were chosen, or rejected as the case may be, and how my writing turned into a 'proper' article for New Scientist. I'm absolutely delighted!