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Written by Kiran Dhanoa.
It was the late 1980s and Gail Anderson was close to finishing her PhD in pest management at SFU. But she was frustrated that her recent discovery of a cure for a minor yet common horse disease hadn’t gained any commercial interest. Around the same time, her biological sciences professor Dr. John Borden suggested Anderson’s expertise with insects to police who were working on a local homicide case. She was struck by the immediate usefulness of forensic entomology–research done in the lab one day could be used in court just weeks later as hard evidence. And so, she took a sideways step along the entomology career spectrum.
“I had always wanted to do something useful with my knowledge of insects,” says the British-born professor of criminology. “And then John presented me with this opportunity and I thought: what could be more useful than helping police solve crimes and catch bad guys?” Soon enough she went on to become the first full-time forensic entomologist in Canada.
In the 1990s, Anderson began conducted studies using pig carcasses—they make for decent stand-ins for humans—in order to study the predictable manner in which insects colonize dead bodies. Her team has left carcasses on land, buried them underground, and submerged them in lakes and oceans to see how insects react to the dead flesh. This work has greatly contributed to the baseline of data used worldwide by police and forensic teams.
It has also helped convince law enforcement agencies, coroners, and other scientists, that forensic entomology methods can produce crucial evidence. Just a few decades ago, the bugs that were on bodies at a crime scene were swept aside as nuisances, but now Anderson’s job includes training police officers to collect the flies, maggots, beetles and other signs of insect life on dead bodies so they can be taken to the lab for analysis.
The insects can reveal a lot. “My research establishes the approximate time of death,” she says. “It can also help investigators determine whether the body has been moved, disturbed or wounded—all information that can lead to outcomes such as identification, exoneration and conviction.”
Despite the clearly distasteful and disturbing elements of her job, Anderson pushes past her squeamishness by putting on her rational scientist’s hat. “I don’t like watching blood and guts on TV but when I am at a crime scene I know my work is potentially going to be very important, so I very quickly look at the insects and the evidence and get to work.”
She also never forgets that she can help deliver a sense of closure to a victim’s family and friends, and even to society at large. “When I’m called upon to work on investigation it usually means that someone has died before their time,” she says. “If my analysis provides evidence leading to prosecution then at least the person responsible can be stopped from killing again. Also, homicides have a major impact on the public psyche and so this work can help alleviate that by speeding up and solving an investigation.”
Gail Anderson is a Professor in the SFU School of Criminology.