Being in the field can be a whirlwind of activity, but what tends to get glossed over is all the preparation and work that goes into a project before it ever gets to the field. Fieldwork begins months before a researcher leaves the lab, even if you don’t count coming up with the idea, building collaborations with other researchers, and grant submission. I’m preparing for some really exciting research on the isotopic taphonomy of human remains, and I’m in the last phase of getting ready to go in the field.

Isotopes can be very powerful in helping to determine information about where someone was born, where they’ve travelled and what kind of diet they ate. In cases where a body is found with no identification, this can be very helpful in providing investigative leads to identify them – particularly if they don’t have any matching DNA in CODIS. This kind of research has been used for decades in anthropology to understand migration of ancient populations, but only recently have these tools started to be used in the context of modern forensics.

Isotopes have been used in selected case studies, but there hasn’t been systematic study to see how well these signatures are preserved after death as a body decomposes in the context of modern forensics. The Department of Justice has funded us to look at this issue. We’ll be analyzing hair, tooth enamel and bone of individuals who have donated their bodies to science at two “Body Farms” – the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Texas State, San Marcos. These two sites have really different climates, so we should be able to look at the role of precipitation and humidity on decay. San Marcos is similar in climate to a lot of the border to Mexico, and so we hope to be able to use the results of this research to help families find closure if family members don’t make it through the desert while attempting to come across to the US.

In order to understand the context, we’re also collecting rainwater, groundwater and soil samples. This will let us look at the endmembers that may be contributing chemical signatures to the bodies and help us understand what the controlling factors are. We’ll be looking at oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, strontium and lead isotopes, as well as elemental composition. Collecting hair, bone, tooth enamel, groundwater, precipitation and soil cores for all these different types of analyses is challenging because each type of analysis has its own consideration in sample collection and storage, and each sample type has multiple protocols for collection.

Testing the deployment of the precipitation collector.

Testing the deployment of the precipitation collector.