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U of T students help develop new ways to find dead bodies

Forensic geophysics students Nathan Stoikopoulos and Jessica Liu take measurements using ground-penetrating radar (photo courtesy of Charly Bank)

Research Opportunity Program offers students a chance to get hands-on experience

Six years ago, 24 pigs and other miscellaneous items were buried in a farmer's field near Toronto – setting up an experiment to figure out the best methods to locate buried murder victims and the items associated with foul play.

For the next five years, teams of undergraduate students in the department of Earth sciences measured changes in the soil around the objects over time and through the four seasons. Pigs wrapped in fabric are effective stand-ins for humans because they decompose much like people do and are of similar sizes.

Almost 20 students worked with Charly Bank, an associate professor, teaching stream, of the department of Earth sciences, to develop procedures for locating such burials. They monitored decomposition of the pigs using geophysical methods, with the results to be compared with analyses done by a forensic team from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

“It sounded like something you would see on a forensic TV show,” said Shelly Zhang, a human biology and nutritional sciences student who took part. “It was very different from lab-heavy research. You get to manipulate the data but also visit the actual research site.”

The project was a multi-year offering of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s research opportunity program (ROP), which enables undergraduates to gain valuable hands-on experience under the close direction of an established faculty researcher. Bank, a near-surface geophysics specialist who has led ROP projects with students since 2007, had learned about the buried bodies test site and saw an ideal opportunity for U of T students to contribute and hone their research skills in the process.

Students were involved with all aspects of data acquisition – initially one field day every other month, and evolving to bi-weekly visits in the final year – and analysis. They attained skills in using various geophysical methods such as ground-penetrating radar, magnetometry in the search for metal objects, and resistivity, which involves injecting an electric current into the ground to enable the measurement of soil disturbances, objects or fluids that disrupt the current’s flow.

“Field research was completely new to me when I started this project,” said Jodie Lunger, a pharmacology and immunology student. “Unlike a molecular biology lab, the instruments we used were often large and heavy, which I was not expecting. It really is a team effort out in the field, and I gained an appreciation for the people that do field research regularly.”

For Soho Shim, who credits her secret childhood desire to be an archeologist or detective with leading her to the project, the difference between field work and theory was striking.

“I learned that field research is about approximation,” she said. “There are numerous factors which let the result deviate from the ideal classroom model. As a math and physics student, it was hard to accept the discrepancy between the field result and the model.

“But at the end of the day, explaining such discrepancies was the highlight of the project.”

Students prepare a patch of field for resistivity testing, along with Puffi the dog. From left to right are Parham Adiban, Eva Zhang and Sam Edwards (photo courtesy of Charly Bank)

Bank showed students how methods used in Earth sciences could bolster the efforts of law enforcement officials in searches for missing persons.

“Finding clandestine burials of murder victims, weapons, drugs or money is very difficult,” he said. “Though visual inspections, trained sniffing dogs, and probing sticks are still the methods of choice, geophysical methods provide an additional avenue.

“It is important to try all methods to see how they may work in different environments,” Bank added. “There are body farms in the United States and Australia, but environmental conditions in southwestern Ontario such as climate and soil compositions are different, so we can expect results to differ."

An average of 200 students enrol in ROP courses every year, assisting faculty members on a wide variety of projects spanning nearly all disciplines in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Bank said he has been continually impressed with the dedication and energy his ROP students bring, and their ability to produce good research results at such an early stage in their careers.

Eligible students wishing to participate in the research opportunity program during the 2018 summer term and 2018-19 fall-winter terms can submit applications until Monday, June 4.