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  • gwynethnotpaltrow 7:30 pm on July 16, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , forensics, Jake Smith, taphonomy   

    Team effort 

    Doing this research involves a significant amount of physical labor as well as intellectual effort. I’m extremely grateful for all the help I’ve had both at UT and Texas State. Over the last week, we’ve placed five donors for this project, three in surface plots protected by cages to prevent scavenging and two in burials. This definitely wouldn’t be possible without the incredible assistance of undergrads (many volunteers!), interns, grad students and faculty keeping this complex facility running smoothly. From digging graves, placing donors, taking daily photographs and carefully documenting the processes of decomposition, there’s a lot of good will despite all the hard work and olfactory issues associated with decomposing bodies.

    From left to right, Sydney Shaver, Jessica Newcomb, Victoria Bates, Christine Bailey (volunteer coordinator), Abigail Brennan and Tiffany Saul (grad student). Bonnie Simmons not pictured. We worked hard to get our placements done before severe thunderstorms swept back in.

    From left to right, Sydney Shaver, Jessica Newcomb, Victoria Bates, Christine Bailey (volunteer coordinator), Abigail Brennan and Tiffany Saul (grad student). Bonnie Simmons not pictured. We worked hard to get our placements done before severe thunderstorms swept back in.

    Two other grad students, Angela Dautartas and Jake Smith, also put in far more hours than they are paid for. They do tasks ranging from picking up donors, completing donor intake, building cages to keep out scavengers (mostly raccoons) as well as doing their graduate research. Jake has 15 years experience in managing a funeral home, so he does much of the coordination with donors and their families. He works very hard to make sure the donation process is going to work emotionally for the donors’ families, while balancing the needs of researchers. Although he’s only wearing one hat in the image below, he wears many in real life.

    University of Tennessee, Knoxville grad students Angela Dautartas and Jake Smith (wearing hat) take proper precautions when handling human remains.

    University of Tennessee, Knoxville grad students Angela Dautartas and Jake Smith (wearing hat) take proper precautions when handling human remains.

    Many of the donors have pre-willed their bodies to the facility, filling out extensive paperwork about where they were born, where they’ve lived and detailed medical histories. This information is critical not just for current research, but because later on the donors will become part of the largest modern skeletal collection in the world, with more than 1200 individuals. If you look at the literature of forensic anthropology, you’ll quickly realize that many of studies estimating age, sex and racial group come from this collection.

    Angela and Jake showed me the steps behind the intake process. This is where donors are carefully photographed, with any injuries, trauma and the condition of teeth are carefully noted. The donors are weighed and measured, and samples of blood, hair and nails are taken for future analysis. Jake is familiar with the many research studies going on at one time, and will evaluate which studies any particular individual donor will be involved in. They are then taken up to the facility, where they will be photographed and observed daily throughout decomposition.

     
  • gwynethnotpaltrow 6:38 pm on July 10, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , forensics   

    Dr. Bass! 

    I’m now in Tennessee at the original “Body Farm” continuing my research. Today, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet Dr. Bass, who started the facility (Anthropological Research Facility, or ARF) in 1981 to scientifically study the processes of human decomposition. In the beginning, doing this type of research offended a lot of people, but much of what we know about how to estimate time of death with insect activity, visual and chemical changes comes from him and his students. You can actually take a short video tour with Dr. Bass through the Body Farm here, but please note that there are images of human skeletal remains in the video.

    Dr. Bass started an Anthropological Response Team that would go out to crime scenes with human remains in Tennessee – previously, law enforcement would just bring him a skull and perhaps a couple of bones. His idea that looking at the entire context of the scene by someone who was an anthropological expert made him a real visionary. He’s also a board-certified forensic anthropologist – one of only 106 in all of US history!

    As with many scientists, and perhaps anthropologists in particular, he’s a wonderful storyteller. We chatted for some minutes and he told me of cases he’s worked and I could tell he’s still passionate about helping families to figure out what happened to their loved ones.

    The term “Body Farm” was popularized by Patricia Cornwell’s novel, who has a main character based on Dr. Bass. With John Jefferson, Dr. Bass has written eight novels as well as an autobiography, so clearly he’s been honing his storytelling abilities for many years.

    Meeting Dr. Bass!

    Meeting Dr. Bass!

     
  • gwynethnotpaltrow 5:44 pm on June 23, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , forensics,   

    Coming…and going 

    I survived the weather in Texas, and have returned to ASU just long enough to unpack and restock supplies before going to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. My samples made it back safely, but most measurements will have to wait until after my trip to Tennessee.

    Lab Technician Trevor Martin demonstrates the use of the liquid nitrogen ball mill.

    Lab Technician Trevor Martin demonstrates the use of the liquid nitrogen ball mill.

    Tiffany Saul, a graduate student at UTK, will be coming here to ASU this fall to run some isotope analyses on the samples, as well as some of her thesis samples. She’s just finish going to IsoCamp through the University of Utah, so she’ll have a good opportunity to apply what she’s just learned about stable isotopes in ecology to our studies of the Body Farm in Tennessee. Utah has added a second course, SPATIAL, to cover the rapidly emerging topic of “isoscapes”, or isotopic landscapes.

    Oxygen and hydrogen isoscapes in plants, from Jason West’s group at Texas A&M.

    The concept that isotope ratios vary in systematic and predictable ways with geography is at the heart of the idea of figuring out where people were born or have moved. Our bodies are built when we eat food (carbon, nitrogen, strontium, even lead!), and drink water (oxygen and hydrogen). This leaves everyone with a measurable chemical and isotopic signature of where you live. This concept has been used for several decades in ecology and anthropology, to help understand animal migrations and ancient populations. It’s been championed in forensics and nutrition by a handful of researchers for more than a decade, but it has taken a while to become widespread. It employs concepts from geology (isotopic fractionation and measurements, large scale climate patterns), biology (metabolism), chemistry, and culture (food choices, migrations), so it requires researchers to cross boundaries between traditional scientific disciplines. It’s a very powerful tool that is finding wider application, and I’m excited to be a part of this emerging discipline.

     

     
  • gwynethnotpaltrow 7:44 pm on June 12, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , forensics   

    Texas State San Marcos Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF, aka “Body Farm”) 

    I’ve had a busy several days here. Dr. Daniel Wescott, director of the facility, and Dr. Deborah Cunningham have been very welcoming and they have some really nice facilities.

    The weather’s been threatening rain, so I set up my precipitation samplers with the assistance of Texas State grad student Brittany McClain. We also collected several soil cores in the sticky Texas clay. We’re collecting rainwater and soil to see what elements and isotopes might be exchanging with the different tissues I’m studying. I want to understand how well the isotopic signatures before death are preserved, so I need context about the soil and water.

    The students here at Texas State collect samples of DNA, hair and fingernails from donors when they arrive. Yesterday, I collected a number of hair samples from bodies that have been outside for various periods of time, from a few days to six months. I’ll be able to compare hair when they first arrived to now, to see how the chemical signatures evolve.

    If you’re interested in reading about a real-life example where this type of analysis provided crucial help to identify a victim, you can read more about it here. The case mentioned in that link was particularly interesting because isotopic changes along the length of the hair suggested frequent moves between regions. I’m hoping to provide some of the basic research to determine if these isotopic signatures are robust.

    A quick note – there will be no graphic pictures on this blog. The donors and their families have done an incredible service to society by allowing us to study them, and everyone I’ve met involved with this type of research is concerned with protecting donors’ privacy and respecting them for their gift to research and science. People can pre-register for full-body donation at FARF.

    Texas State grad student Brittany McClain demonstrates the use of a soil probe. She's standing between two plots. The one in front of her is a control plot, while the one behind her had a body buried in it last summer. Note the difference in vegetation.

    Texas State grad student Brittany McClain demonstrates the use of a soil probe. She’s standing between two burial plots. The one in front of her is a control plot (no body), while the one behind her had a body buried in it last summer. Note the difference in vegetation.

     
  • gwynethnotpaltrow 12:15 am on June 10, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , forensics,   

    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.

     
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