Research facility will help solve murder investigations

Professor Shari Forbes and her research team are undertaking research they hope will improve police scent-detection dog training. Picture by Wade Laube

Professor Shari Forbes and her research team are undertaking research they hope will improve police scent-detection dog training. Picture by Wade Laube

In summary: 
  • UTS will establish the first research facility in the Southern Hemisphere to improve understanding of how human remains decompose and help police with missing persons and homicide investigations
  • A major collaboration with police and other universities, the Australian Research Council has awarded funding to support the establishment of the facility early next year on land owned by UTS on Sydney's outskirts

A unique Australian research facility on the outskirts of Sydney will improve understanding of how human remains decompose, and help police with missing persons and homicide investigations.

The multidisciplinary facility for taphonomic experimental research, which is being established by the UTS and several partners, will be the first in the Southern Hemisphere to use donated human cadavers to study the processes of decomposition.

Taphonomy is the study of organic remains from the time of death to the time of discovery. A major collaboration with police and other universities, the proposed facility represents the next step in the ground-breaking research conducted by the UTS Centre for Forensic Science.

Headed by world-leading UTS forensic scientist Professor Shari Forbes, the research will be conducted in collaboration with police and forensic services, ensuring data generated at the facility is applicable to human death investigations.

The facility has council approval and now has been awarded a $430,000 Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) grant by the Australian Research Council (ARC).

The ARC grant will support the establishment of the facility early next year on land owned by UTS. The facility will be surrounded by a high-security fence, monitored by CCTV cameras and invisible to passing traffic or surrounding properties.

In light of recent tragic events across the globe, the importance of human taphonomy research to improve our techniques for search and recovery of victims cannot be understated, said UTS Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Glenn Wightwick.

"Improvement in the training and application of these techniques can considerably enhance the success of victim recovery teams and lessen the impact on families and the community following mass disasters and other unnatural deaths," said Professor Wightwick.

Professor Forbes said the ethical use of donated human cadavers for scientific studies was vital for the success of human death investigations here and overseas, including neighbouring countries where Australia sent emergency response teams in times of disaster.

"The scientists and police involved in this research are confronted by death on a regular basis and understand the moral and ethical significance of working with human cadavers, just like doctors and medical students," said Professor Forbes.

"This type of research is conducted with the utmost respect for the donor and compassion for the families involved, recognising the invaluable contribution they are making to society," she said.

Professor Forbes said the facility would inform a wide range of related study, including textile and fibre degradation and how soil and geological features might provide models to locate clandestine grave sites or concealed evidence.

It would also assist University of Wollongong archaeologists in studies of bone and artefact decomposition, she said.

The research partners include the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Wollongong, The University of Sydney, University of Canberra, The Australian National University, The University of New England, Australian Federal Police, Victoria Police and the NSW Police Department.

If research being done at such a facility helped solve even one murder or missing persons case it would have made a difference, said the executive director of Homicide Victims' Support Group (Aust) Inc., Martha Jabour.

"We strongly support the work Professor Forbes is doing because of the difference it can make to families and friends affected by the murder of a loved one," said Ms Jabour.

Professor Forbes was the founding director of the forensic science program at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) in Canada, where she established a decomposition chemistry laboratory and geo-forensic research facility.

Professor Forbes and a team of PhD researchers are already working with porcine cadavers to identify the myriad chemical compounds emitted from decomposing remains. They hope to establish an accurate "scent" profile of a decomposing human body to assist with training cadaver dogs.

The decomposition process of pig and human remains is similar. It is hoped research at the new facility will provide scientific data to confirm the accuracy of using porcine remains for decomposition research because using human remains is not always an option.

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