Answers from Ashes, Dust, and Dirt

Far from dead, a human cadaver is teeming with life when viewed as host for thousands of bacteria, insects and fungi.

Faculty researchers at Sam Houston State University have been studying the effects of decomposition on the microbiome of human cadavers for more than a decade. By having a better understanding of the composition of these bacterial ecosystems, they can use the information to more accurately estimate a victim’s postmortem interval or time-of-death in crime scene investigations.

Supported by several million dollars in research funding, Sibyl Bucheli and Aaron Lynne, both associate professors for the Department of Biology, and their longtime collaborators from Colorado State University, have been given the green light to continue their work, with an additional $1.2 million in combined support from the National Institute of Justice.

Their newly funded experiment will take place at the Sam Houston State Applied Anatomical Research Center, one of several facilities across the nation that collects donated cadavers for scientific research. This time around, they will be testing the effects of indoor versus outdoor decomposition and the implications for future forensic research. In recognition of their efforts, Lynne was awarded the SHSU Faculty Excellence Award for Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments this past year and Bucheli has been featured in National Geographic, NPR and multiple podcasts.

“Our individual work is situated within the broader mission of the university, which has a commitment to serving the public good, achieved in large part through our research,” Lynne said.

Coinciding with their goal of continuous learning, they also aim to train the next generation of researchers and currently employ close to 30 undergraduate students this semester.

“We are at Sam Houston State because we believe in the mission of the teacher-scholar. We are training students in not only the course material, but training and preparing them for their future careers,” Lynne said. “I think you could go around this entire department and all of the faculty will tell you that getting involved in research as an undergraduate is the reason why they are in the job that they are in. I have a similar story. I always tell students that learning about biology is fun, but doing biology is more fun.”

Though the university encourages meeting certain benchmarks, most faculty have a natural quest for knowledge and an inclination to leave the world a little better than they found it.

“We want to be successful, but we don’t feel the pressure from the institution to bring in X amount of dollars or we’ll be out of a job,” Bucheli said. “The university is very accommodating and allows us to define what our scholarly products are and then pursue those because you want to, and not because you have to.”

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