Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Hungarian hijinks!

Over these last few days, I have been having a wonderful time in the incredibly beautiful and hospitable country of Hungary. I was honoured to be invited to speak at two conferences, one in Budapest, and one in Pecs, last week. The first was the European Association of Forensic Entomology conference in Budapest, which is very well respected and was well attended. I was delighted to see my Huddersfield colleague Dr Stefano Vanin, and see old friends such as Dr Martin Hall from the Natural History Museum. I flew into Budapest on Thursday, just in time to give a presentation about the cadaver dog scenting research we have done at the Forensic Anthropology Research Group about how identification of the gases of decomposition can aid the training of cadaver/human remains detection dogs.
After a delightful evening sampling Hungarian food and beer, and sightseeing (rather quickly, from a car), I traveled the next day to the leafy, bright University town of Pecs.

Budapest looking lovely at night
Here, hosted by Dr Orsolya Horvath, a lawyer and PhD researcher exploring identification of criminals using scent detection by dogs, I attended the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Conference at the University of Pecs. The University of Pecs is celebrating its 650th year next year, and is the oldest university in Hungary. The halls are lined with oil paintings of previous professors, and the rooms were clad in dark wood, giving it a very formal, ostentatious air. I certainly felt extremely privileged to be speaking there. Mine was the third plenary lecture of the conference, given on the Saturday evening to a packed lecture theatre. I spoke about our research into improving the training and validity of cadaver dog evidence, but also about the need for a Human Taphonomy Facility (HTF) in Europe.

Giving my plenary lecture
During my time in Hungary, I met many forensic researchers and police officers from the national Police Institute. All were united in their appreciation of the potential scope of an HTF in Europe, and possibly Hungary. I was excited about the enthusiasm, vision and high scientific standards I encountered.

I was also particularly excited to meet a scent identification dog of the future, Orsolya's 4 month old bloodhound puppy, Monroe. Orsolya, a trained dog handler, is planning to train her up to be a working scent identification/human remains detection dog. Here's a picture of Monroe, who was simply gorgeous!

Orsolya starting Monroe's training     
Monroe the bloodhound

I had a wonderful time in Hungary, where I met some really inspiring people. I am looking forward to collaborating with them and putting our heads together to make some positive changes in forensic science and scent identification in the near future.

Friday, 8 April 2016

What does decomposition sound like?

As you may know, I have done a bit of research on what decomposition smells like. We at the University of Huddersfield Forensic Anthropology Research Group have been looking at the volatile organic compounds that are given off by a cadaver as it decomposes, and determining how knowledge of these compounds can help us improve the training of specialist 'victim remains' detection dogs (see previous post: What's that smell?, and this article in The Conversation.). I have also presented some interesting, interactive talks and demonstrations where the audience get to smell for themselves some of the main players in the 'scent of death'.

In my talks, I have often described the scent of death and decomposition as a 'symphony' of smells, of chemicals waxing and waning with time as the process unfolds. In light of this, I have recently teamed up with exciting, London-based artist duo French and Mottershead to describe the process of decomposition in sound. They have created the fascinating suite of interactive works called Afterlife, that explores the 'experience' of decomposition - a medley of sounds, smells and 'feelings' of the final journey from a whole body to our constituent parts. Take a few minutes to listen to their slightly disturbing, macabre but strangely soothing and lullaby-like piece about a body decomposing in a woodland environment here.

They also devised and organised the fantastic Passing Encounters Open Seminar, held at UCL on the 6th February this year, that brought together artists, historians, forensic anthropologists and sociologists to discuss attitudes towards death, dying and decomposition. I was very happy and honoured to be invited to speak and to bring the scent of death experience with me. Here is a picture of the faces of the audience as they smelled some of the odours associated with decomposition.

Our new project involves trying to capture the sounds of decomposition. I love the concept of taking a well-known process and looking at it from another perspective. We're working with experienced and dynamic sound recordist/sound designer Pascal Wyse. I helped them by providing some decomposing animal carcasses for them to record. We started off looking at rabbit carcasses (not killed for the purposes of the research) in different stages of decomposition. We recorded the sounds from this rabbit clearly in the bloat stage (reached after about a month after death in this case). Flies were attracted to the corpse, there were maggots active around its orifices. We put a special microphone up against its bloated abdomen as well, to listen to any sounds of gases gurgling. 

We are hoping to extend this work to capture the sounds of larger animals decomposing, and hopefully, one day, with appropriate funding, take sound recordings from human corpses. I absolutely love this multidisciplinary type of work, taking advantage of the intriguing cross-overs between scientific and artistic endeavour. Hopefully, we will have more to tell you soon - watch this space!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

"Body Farms" again...

Earlier this month, I was chuffed to be invited to give a talk at the wonderful Bart's Pathology Museum at St Bartholomew's Hospital, Queen Mary University of London, by the delectable Carla Valentine, the museum's Technical Curator. She asked me to talk about my pet subject, Human Taphonomy Facilities (HTFs), or 'Body Farms', as they have become colloquially known.

To a sold out venue (thank you!), I spoke about the history of 'Body Farms', how they came about in the USA, and how they use donated human cadavers to improve our understanding of the processes of decomposition in a variety of different environments. I described the facilities in the USA and the new one that is opening in early 2016 outside Sydney in Australia (see this previous post too). I discussed how research carried out at these facilities has contributed to our knowledge of decomposition, specifically the estimation of time since death, and the advanced research they are currently doing. I also mentioned the efforts there have been to date to address the fact that there are no such human taphonomy facilities in the UK or even in Europe, and the possible reasons for this reluctance to adopt them. In 2010, there was a notable attempt to establish an HTF in the UK by Omega Supplies Ltd, but this failed for a variety of reasons.

Despite previous failed attempts, I am hopeful that the tide is turning, and that there might be renewed interest in such a venture. I cited recent research undertaken at Staffordshire University that garnered public opinion towards the concept of HTFs and the potential creation of one in the UK. The research demonstrated that the majority of the public surveyed could appreciate the potential benefits of such a facility, and was generally in favour of the creation of one in the UK.

Also, I hope that the current upsurge in the mention of 'Body Farms' in the media means that people will start talking about them, discussing them, and trying to decide for themselves whether they agree with them or not. Would you be willing to donate your body to the advancement of forensic science in this way? For me, the important thing is that the concept gets the attention and debate it deserves.

I wrote an article about it for The Conversation, which was later picked up by the Daily Mail (which incorrectly identified me as 'Professor' - thanks for the promotion!). I hope that what I have written will get people thinking about the pros (and cons) of such facilities, and show how bodies can be put to good use for improving identification techniques and the estimation of time since death.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Otley Science Cafe

Last month, I was lucky enough to give a talk at the Otley Science Cafe, which is part of the Otley Science Festival, a fantastic initiative led by the unmistakable Marty Jopson in his lovely home town of Otley, near Leeds. Every few months, adults and children with enquiring minds pour into the Otley Courthouse to hear speakers pontificate about their favourite science subject. The Cafes have an informal atmosphere, where audience participation is encouraged and the drinks flow freely. On the round, candle-lit tables, you're as likely to be sitting next to a retired engineer, a fossil-hunter or a ten year old keen on astronomy. The speakers are just as diverse. At the last one, on the 17th September, my fellow speakers were Professor Stuart Egginton from the University of Leeds and Dr Chrissy Hammond from the University of Bristol. 

Professor Egginton had the audience enthralled with stories of transparent Antartic ice fish whose physiology allows them to survive at extreme low temperatures - just. He described how their hearts beat at the limit of their capability, and any change in sea temperature will be devastating. 

In her fascinating and entertaining talk, Dr Chrissy Hammond explained how she uses zebra fish to investigate the genes that cause osteoarthritis and produce an elegant model for the development of cartilage in bone in vivo. She even brought along some of her zebra fish models (in the bottle on the table).

In my talk, I invited the audience to take (careful) sniffs of some of the chemicals that we at the Forensic Anthropology Research Group at Huddersfield have identified as being present at different stages of decomposition. I described how knowledge of how these chemicals wax and wane throughout decomposition can be used to improve the training of dogs trained to find human remains.

All in all, the evening had a distinctly 'fishy' tinge to it, but a great time was had by everyone. I greatly recommend that you make a bee line for the Otley Science Cafe next time it is on, and in the meantime, put a date in your diaries for the next Otley Science Festival, which is on from the 9th to the 14th November in..you've guessed it...Otley! It is a brilliant event aimed at increasing awareness and participation in science, whatever your age. 

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!