Inside Forensics: Learning about forensic anthropology at SIUC

CARBONDALE, IL (KFVS) – Original Post

When you’re watching CSI or NCIS they give you a peek into the life of a forensic anthropologist.

But, here in the Heartland, we have our own version.

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale houses one of the only decomposition research facilities in the world.

Gretchen Dabbs is an associate professor in Forensics at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

“It doesn’t take an hour. That’s for sure,” said Dabbs,

She’s also the Director of CFAR, the Complex for Forensic Anthropology Research.

More commonly known as a body farm.

“We don’t use the term body farm,” said Dabbs.

What do they call it?

“An outdoor decomposition research facility,” said Dabbs.

It’s a program Dabbs helped build from the ground up.

“We’re mainly focused on understanding how bodies decompose on the surface in Southern Illinois,” said Dabbs.

Dabbs said through their, and other facilities research, they’ve found just a slight difference in location can change how a body decomposes altogether.

“Not necessarily hugely different, but they are regional,” said Dabbs.

The process is tedious.

“I will place a donor out in the facility exposed to the elements, and then watch the progression of decomposition,” said Dabbs.

We wanted to visit the facility, but Dabbs said it’s top secret.

Only she and one graduate student have access.

“When you take people out there or when you go out there you disrupt the environment. The bugs go away. They don’t come back for a while. So, you actually change the process that you’re studying every time you go and look at it,” said Dabbs.

Dabbs also said it’s to respect those who donated their bodies to the facility.

Around 40 bodies have been donated over the years.

“I think donating your body to science, in general, is one of the most generous things that you can do outside of organ donation,” said Dabbs.

With these bodies, Dabbs said with their donations she’s able to help victim’s families.

“Age, sex, ancestry, stature and those elements can be used by law enforcement to narrow down a list of missing people and investigate those people more closely to try to find a positive identification. That can give families a sense of closure when they finally know what happened to their loved one,” said Dabbs.

Something that happens nightly in the world of TV crime drama.

“I think the most important part about watching any of those shows – CSI, NCIS… is that the results presented are vastly overstated in terms of certainty,” said Dabbs.

She said it takes much more time to come to a conclusion.

“The timeline is definitely condensed on television shows. Each case is different, and each case has its own elements that can add to or decrease the amount of time that it takes,” said Dabbs.

Even though TV and real life are on completely different, the goal is still the same: to help victims and their families.

“It’s really satisfying and gratifying to be able to help in some way to bring people to justice, to provide closure to families,” said Dabbs.

If you are interested in learning more about CFAR or donating your or a loved one’s body to science visit their website.

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