Wednesday 19 October 2016

Smelling death at the Royal Institution

Yesterday, I fulfilled a lifetime ambition of presenting at the Faraday Lecture theatre at the Royal Institution in London. This venue has been made famous as the location for the annual Ri Christmas Lectures, which have been given in previous years by eminent scientists such as Professor Marcus du Sautoy, Professor Brian Cox and (my favourite) Professor Richard Dawkins. You can watch their lectures here.

Yesterday was the day of the On the Front Line Conference, spectacularly organised by the wonderful Forensic Outreach, a company that specialises in inspiring young people to take an interest in forensic science and pursue careers in forensic science. This was open to school leavers, interested lay people, crime writers and others keen to find out more about diverse subjects within forensic science such as ballistics and gun shot residue, the use of jewellery in forensic identification, the psychology behind lone terrorists, and the transfer of DNA.

I was there to present the research the Forensic Anthropology Group at Huddersfield have been doing on identifying the gases given off by bodies as they decompose, more catchily known as the 'Scent of Death'. In order to create an interactive element to the presentation, I spent (aided by Michaela Reagan from UCL) 3 hours before the talk spraying 'perfume' sticks with diluted chemicals isolated from the decomposition process. Audience members got to sniff the sticks from zip lock bags at opportune moments during the talk.

This is from the Forensic Outreach instagram page, showing me preparing the sticks before the talk
My presentation was just before lunch. Hopefully the slides and smells didn't put anyone off their food! I discussed the different stages of decomposition, and described the gases recovered at each stage. Of course, the audience couldn't smell the whole 'bouquet' of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as about 400 have been identified from human decomposition and about 800 from animal decomposition - that would have taken too long!

The view from up in the 'Gods' of the Faraday Lecture Theatre
Starting off the smelling process!

Grappling with the microphone
It was a pity that the time did not allow me to talk about our work using the VOCs we've identified to help the training of 'cadaver dogs', but I think just the smelling might have been enough!
I was very grateful to Forensic Outreach for inviting me to present in this iconic venue, and I hope that one day, I might be doing the Christmas lectures there!

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Viva Mexico!

I have had a very hectic summer, hence the lack of posts! I'm sorry.

Earlier in the year, I joined colleagues from Bangor University and Reading University in applying for a Newton Fund Researcher Links grant from the British Council to deliver a workshop in Mexico in September aimed at fostering Anglo-Mexican collaborations. In late August, we heard that the application had been successful, and suddenly, we were off to sunny Mexico!

The workshop was about Forensic Taphonomy, combined with the (I think) relatively unknown discipline of Forensic Acarology. What is forensic acarology? You'd not be the only one asking. Acarology is the science of microscopic mites and macroscopic mites including ticks. Every single person is home to millions of mites - they live in the pores of our skin, in our hair, including our eyelashes, eyebrows and pubes. They live in our houses, share our beds and bathrooms.

Image result for dust mites actual size

Apparently the populations of mites found are specific to different parts of the house - there will be different species living on windowsills to the rest of the room, or on your pillow or in the middle of the bed. About  10 million house dust mites (HDMs) live in the average bed.

Not surprisingly, given their diversity and specificity to certain conditions, mites can be really useful in forensic situations. Mites, like flies, are quick to colonise a corpse, but they arrive on the bodies of the flies, jump off onto the cadaver and lie in wait to predate on the newly hatched fly larvae. They reproduce more quickly than flies, so can in some instances, be more accurate for estimating time since death. Their specificity means that they can be used in a similar way to other trace evidence, such as soil, diatoms or pollen, to determine where a suspect has been, if a body has been moved, or to link a suspect to a victim or scene. However, given their tiny size and the difficulties there are in identifying them, they have not taken off as a forensic diagnostic tool. More information about the use of mites in a forensic context can be found here.

The workshop focused on introducing Mexican police, criminologists, acarologists, entomologists and anthropologists to taphonomy, decomposition in different environments, search and location techniques, and exploring the potential for cadaver dog training and creating a human taphonomy facility (otherwise known as a 'body farm') to Mexico. As you can imagine, I was rather excited about this possibility! I ran an exercise where the delegates had to plan the structure of a potential research facility, taking into consideration different requirements such as storage, security, lab spaces etc.

Delegates engaged in the exercise to design an HTF

One of the designs
There are different ethical constraints and restrictions in Mexico compared to the UK, but there is a lot of interest among the right people for getting an HTF, as they can see the obvious benefits to forensic science.

During the week, we also undertook a practical exercise where we extracted soil mites from a site where a body (pig carcass) had been deposited.

Caroline collecting soil samples from the deposition site
Collecting the mites from the soil samples
There was a big difference between the soil mites collected from control samples 2m away from the carcass deposition site and those in the soil underneath where the body had been lying. Identification of the mites showed us that they were typical corpse-colonising species.

All our hard work was rewarded with some down time. We happened to be there during the Mexican Independence Day celebrations. There were fireworks, parades in the streets, amazing food and music. Here is a couple dressed in traditional clothes.

And of course, when you're in Mexico, you should do as the Mexicans do...

This is Mezcal, a spirit like Tequila, complete with 'worms' (butterfly larvae/caterpillars)
Needless to say, we had a fantastic time. I am confident that there is plenty of scope for research collaborations with delegates and the Universidad Autonoma de Queretaro, where the workshop was held, and, hopefully more academic and cultural exchanges in the future!

Thursday 23 June 2016

Locard's Lab

I'm very pleased to have been interviewed by Locard's Lab, as part of their initiative to interview a lot of scientists from all different forensic disciplines and from different stages of their career. My interview can be found here. I think Locard's Lab is doing a sterling job bringing together interesting news about forensic research. Keep it up!

Friday 3 June 2016

Summer's here!

I do get excited in the summer when the decomposition experiments get under way! The sweet (or not so sweet) #scentofdeath heralds the start of summer for me!

This summer, we are using the HuddersFIELD taphonomy facility to do forensic experiments on porcine cadavers. Please be reassured that these pigs have not been killed for the purposes of the research, but died of natural causes. We are putting their bodies to good use as they would otherwise be destroyed. Students of the Forensic Anthropology Research Group at the University of Huddersfield are working alongside and in conjunction with the Buckley Proteomics Lab at the University of Manchester.

We are conducting a variety of research projects, for example, looking at how skin colour changes in different environments - on the surface and submerged in water - to see whether this could affect identification of unknown remains if they are found on land or in water. We are also examining the old adage, or "Casper's Law" (Casper, 1862) that a body submerged in water takes twice as long to decompose as one on the surface, and a buried body takes eight times as long to decompose (all other variables being equal). In addition, we are investigating how the conductivity and micro-organisms in water change with time if a cadaver is submerged, or in soil water if a body is buried. We are also comparing the proteomic decay in buried, submerged and surface deposited cadavers - so we are certainly making the most of the pig cadavers we are using!

These are pictures of some of the pig cadavers we are using. They show how the process of decomposition is progressing after a 2 and 3 week interval.
This is Pig number 1 on the surface on the first day.
This is the same pig, after 14 days.
This is the same pig, after 21 days.

This is Pig 2 submerged, on day 0.
This is the same pig after 14 days.
This is the same pig after 21 days. 

If you have any questions about the research, or you would like to come and visit or enquire about doing collaborative research (affiliated with a university please), then please do get in touch.

Casper, JL (1862) A Handbook of The Practice of Forensic Medicine. The New Sydenham Society, London. [Accessible here].

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!