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.

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