What exactly is a body farm? Professor Shari Forbes explains what happens when people donate their bodies to science.
Hidden deep in the Blue Mountains is the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, a research facility run by UTS. It’s commonly shortened to AFTER, but many know it by another name: the body farm. It’s here where leading scientific researcher professor Shari Forbes spends most of her time surrounded by decomposing dead bodies. Morbid, yes, but fascinating both to science fiends and CSI fans.
“AFTER is the only facility in Australia where we allow people to donate their bodies to science,” says Forbes. “So that we can study the process of decomposition”. Forbes’ job is to assist with cadaver detection dogs. “I collect and chemically analyse the decomposition odour – possibly the worst part of the decomposition process,” she says. “We’re trying to understand the compounds in the odour that dogs recognise when they’re looking for human remains.”
The facility is the first of its kind in Australia, and models itself after the body farms found in the US. And as you might have guessed, they love and loathe the comparison to the long running TV series CSI. “We love it because it has really raised awareness of forensic science,” says Forbes. “But it’s caused what we call the ‘CSI Effect’ where there’s an unrealistic expectation of what we can achieve and the time frame we can do that in. It’s a challenge for us, especially when we’re presenting as expert witnesses in court to juries who watch CSI.”
Since opening the body farm early last year, they’ve made a number of discoveries, the most notable is how different bodies decay in varying climates. Interestingly, Forbes tells us they can no longer use pigs as an accurate analogy for human decomposition. “It’s shown me that my last ten years of research has not been as accurate as I would have liked. But it’s also shown why we have to have these facilities. We can never recreate a real scenario unless we have human remains being used for human decomposition studies.”
Professor Forbes is the ambassador for this year’s Sydney Science Festival – two weeks of talks, exhibitions and workshops from August 8-20. She’ll be giving a keynote talk on all things forensics, death and decomposition – but don’t worry, Forbes is well versed in making this not-so-dinner-party-friendly topic accessible for all.
Cracking the World of Forensics takes place at the Powerhouse Museum on Friday August 11. 6.30pm. $15-$32.