Smelly Science

We had our 23rd PubhD Nottingham event last night – and it was also our two year birthday.

PubhD 2nd Birthday

We had three fantastic speakers (Helen Drew, Andy Chick and Sam Morley) talking about subjects as diverse as History, Forensic Entomology and Mathematics. Fascinating talks, very entertaining Q&As.

I wanted to share an anecdote provided by Andy.

But first, some background.

Andy is researching Forensic Entomology – “the application and study of insect and other arthropod biology to criminal matters”. Basically, using insects such as blue bottle flies, and the eggs they lay, to establish an approximate “time of death” of a person – or more accurately, the minimum length of time a body has been lying around in, say, some woodland.

Andy Chick - Forensic Entomology

Andy Chick – Forensic Entomology

Andy’s specific area of research is to investigate if smoking effects the estimates of time of death. Nicotine is known to be an insecticide. If a person was a smoker, does this need to be taken into account during the calculations?

The best human analogue for these types of experiments are pigs. Pigs are similar to humans in many ways (fat content, body mass, hair-to-skin ratio, etc), which makes them the ideal for forensic experiments. Andy’s experiments involved essentially injecting nicotine into (already deceased) pigs that were not fit for consumption. He then observed them over many days to see if the nicotine changed the behaviour of insects, their eggs and their young.

During the Q&A and I asked the obvious question: how smelly was this work?

And here comes the anecdote. Apologies to any sports scientists…

Andy and his colleague shared a lab with the sports science department. As you can imagine, there were a lot of complaints from the sports scientists. The smell. The flies. The smell. The flies. The rotten sticking pigs. The flies. The smell. It was bad.

One day Andy returned to the lab to see another massive argument was in progress between his colleague and one of the sports scientists. Andy arrived just in time to witness his colleague scream:

You know what that smell is? It’s the smell of real science!