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Learning from the dead

TO THE ORACLE

For some, hands-on learning means a field trip. For others, it means working with decomposing corpses under the hot Florida sun.

USF may soon have a new facility dedicated to studying the decomposition of human bodies in Florida’s natural environment.

The Facility for Outdoor Experimental Research and Training (FORT) is a program available through the USF Department of Anthropology for students with an interest in forensic anthropology. FORT aims to be a point of research and education for students and law enforcement officials with the goal of expanding on methodologies related to crime scenes involving human victims.

The facility, which will be the first in Florida, is one of at least a dozen in the nation. The proposed location would be in a wooded area off Highway 39 in Lithia, currently owned by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and used for a shooting range.

“Everything we do is really related to the issue and problem of missing persons,” said Erin Kimmerle, a USF professor of anthropology. “They may be long term missing, or a recent homicide, but if they’re buried or dumped in these outdoor contexts, that’s where we’re trying to help answer the questions. Who were they? Why were they here? How long have they been here?”

While facilities similar to the one proposed currently exist in states across the nation such as Texas, Illinois and Tennessee, Kimmerle believes there is a distinct to implement a facility unique to Florida.

“Here in Florida, we have a very different climate, different soils, different environment than really anywhere else in the country …all of those environmental variables — temperature, rainfall, acidity in the soil — all of that affects how not just human remains decompose, but fibers, paper, trace evidence,” she said. “We need local standards, we need to know what works in our environment, what are the conditions, what are the variables.”

These facilities permit students, researchers and professionals to look at human bodies and the environment at a baseline, introduce different research studies to the space and monitor them over time using specific designs in order to apply the findings to real life cases.

“We have become a resource for law enforcement throughout Florida in that we routinely do this work and we’re really the only ones that are doing it,” Kimmerle said. “Generally speaking, these are areas of expertise beyond what normal forensic units do in law enforcement and they call us. We’ve done many searches and many cases for Hillsborough and all the surrounding counties and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.”

HCSO reports 38 unsolved homicides within the last decade.

Human body donations can be made through a living donation program where individuals can donate their bodies to USF as they would in any other type of scientific research. Since announcing the development of FORT two weeks ago, USF has received 27 requests from individuals for donation packets and additional information.

After death, the bodies may be used for research, or buried either to decompose or be used to train individuals about remote sensing. 

Remote sensing involves burying a body and using tools to locate the body from above ground. Using FORT for this purpose will allow students and professionals to be trained in this type of methodology.

After the bodies have decomposed and skeletonize, they are cleaned and become a part of USF’s permanent collection, which is a resource for students and researchers.

“Studying these skeletons helps to identify how old the individual is, their health, their stature and their ancestry. There’s a great need for modern collections that reflect that human diversity,” said Kimmerle, who believes this is the reason that many people are interested in donating

Since 2006, the undergraduate Forensic Anthropology course at USF has done a similar program to what is currently being developed for the purpose of teaching by using animal bodies. Classes have used the USF Ecological Research Area, the woods behind MOSI and Tampa’s Blackwater Hammock Park. In these classes, large mammals are buried in these areas and the students, along with the FBI Evidence Response Team, learn how to find graves, excavate them and preserve evidence.

“It’s a way to take everything students learn in the classroom and apply it in a very fun, hands-on kind of way,” Kimmerle said. “Being able to use donated remains gives us the opportunity to do that kind of research that we can do with animals.”

FORT, which was originally set for completion this summer, is currently in the hands of county officials and the public as USF seeks their acceptance and approval. 

Some of the natural concerns of the public include water contamination, odor and negative environmental effects. However, Kimmerle said none of those will occur as a result of FORT’s development.

A public meeting will be held Thursday to address public concerns, provide more information to the community, answer questions and hear feedback. The meeting will take place in the Pinecrest Elementary School Cafeteria located at 7950 Lithia Pinecrest Road in Lithia at 6:30 p.m.

“This is about research and education, but the big picture is that all of that research and education goes toward finding missing persons and helping solve cases,” Kimmerle said. “We know that the casework that we do regularly, and through so many success stories that this works. We see this as an opportunity to build that capacity and expand that mission … it’s not just about academic research for the sake of something to study. It’s a very applied practical solution to a very tragic problem.”