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The Smelly Side of Forensics

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The smelly side of forensics

By Stephen Luntz

The bacteria in decomposing bodies can help to determine when a person died – even if only a skeleton remains.

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Studying the decomposition of pigs might sound like it’s a promising topic for a rival column called “Uncool Careers”, but add the word “forensics” and Dr Rachel Parkinson belongs on this page.

“Human decomposition is a littleunderstood process, and even less is known about the microbiology involved,” Parkinson says. “My research aimed to investigate the bacterial species that decompose human bodies and determine whether they can tell us when that person died.”

Prime time television has made forensics the hottest area of science among potential students, but Parkinson says funding has not kept pace. Consequently exciting research projects languish for lack of money, and few people have looked into the bacteria that break us down after death. Even Parkinson came to the topic on a tangent.

Parkinson’s Masters degree at Victoria University, Wellington, studied soil bacteria in order to improve forensic matching of soil on shoes. Having achieved some success, one of her colleagues wondered if the research could be put to any other uses, and suggested applying it to decomposition. This became Parkinson’s doctorate.

Since human bodies are not readily available for her studies, Parkinson went to work on pigs. “I got used to the smell and the maggots, but you have to hold your breath a lot,” Parkinson says.

To be sure that her research was...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.