In a unique independent research project this fall, three Curry students - Ismae Bailey '21, Alyssa Rocha '21, and Mackenzie Vieira '23 – got firsthand experience studying how insects interact with decomposing remains, to learn how their behavior and biology can help forensic investigators ascertain valuable information from a crime scene.
The study of insects and arthropods in a criminal investigation, known as forensic entomology, can allow scientists to estimate the time of death and any change in the position of the corpse, among many other factors.
"The insect activity tells you a lot about the body," says Bailey, a double major in forensic science and biology. "The hands-on work is my favorite. I love that I can see everything with my own two eyes. It's different than seeing it in a textbook. We're doing the fieldwork that a forensic entomologist would do, and that's exciting."
The students led the eight-week study using a small, already deceased pig as the decomposing "victim" in a secure outdoor structure on campus stationed with 24x7 wildlife cameras for observation. The hands-on lab and fieldwork involved frequent visits to record the pig's decompositional stage, and the collection, preservation, and analysis of insects, including flies/maggots, wasps, and ants, among others from on and around the carcass
The forensic entomology research project was spearheaded by Bailey, who aspires to become a Medico-legal Death Investigator after graduating in the spring. She pitched the independent research project idea to Dr. Elizabeth Wade, whose research interests include entomology.
"By providing our undergraduate students with opportunities for authentic research experiences, they not only have a better understanding of the scientific research process, but it gives them an incredible advantage when applying to competitive graduate schools," says Dr. Wade, an assistant professor in the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.
As a sophomore majoring in biology, Vieira agrees that the research opportunities at Curry will help her to achieve her goal of attending medical school. "I want to be a pediatric neurologist, and having this knowledge of how to work in a research lab setting is valuable. It's already helped me get my foot in the door for a possible summer internship at a hospital."
The student researchers are currently finalizing their work by classifying each insect collected with photos they took using Digital Microscopes before preserving them in ethanol. “This project was the first step in setting up a long-term research program centered around improving our understanding of and ability to use forensic entomology in New England that many students will be able to participate in during the coming years,” adds Dr. Wade.
Bailey hopes that the independent research project idea might inspire other students to spearhead new passion projects of their own. "There are many opportunities to do research at Curry, but you don't have to be attached to the topics that your professors might already be doing," she says. "Don't be afraid to come up with your own idea and talk with your professor to get them interested and see how you might be able to do it together."