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!