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'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!

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.