Murder and maggots
As it turns out, TV got it wrong – again.
Forensic entomologist Dr. Gail Anderson is coming to the U of R to give a lecture about how studying insects can get you a job like Gil Grissom, or whoever the new guy is on CSI.
Forensic entomology is the study of insects to determine the amount of time that’s passed since a human being has died. Insects can also be used to discover if a body was disturbed at the site either by animals, or by the murderer returning to the scene of the crime.
Anderson is a professor and assistant director at the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University in B.C. She is also a board-certified forensic entomologist with the American Board of Forensic Entomology.
She took her first case in 1998, and became board-certified in 1996. She is also a regular consultant for the RCMP and police services across Canada, and occasionally in the United States.
Anderson states that television shows like CSI, NCIS, Dexter or Bones can give people the wrong expectations as to how quickly a forensic scientist can work when they’re at a crime scene.
“I suspect my profession has been less affected than other forensic areas,” she explained. “Certainly, it’s a bit stupid when Grissom comes in and stares at the fly on the wall and says, ‘Ah yes, [time of death was] three days.’ It sort of belittles the whole thing. And [writers] are inclined to make them an expert in everything. Grissom himself – who is basically me – [would have to be] at least a 150-years-old to be qualified in things he says he’s qualified in.”
It took Anderson 11 years of post-secondary education to get her Ph.D. In addition to this, she completed five more years to be certified as an actual forensic entomologist.
“You can’t be an expert in everything and that’s fine because TV is TV it’s all for the entertainment, it’s not there to teach us everything. But, unfortunately, the people that are watching are the future jury members or judges and they get very strange ideas of what the job actually is,” she said.
“It’s obviously not really for the very squeamish, because you’re dealing with highly decomposed remains. But … you know you’re there for a very important purpose and that’s to try and identify this person and catch the bad guy…make sure the police catch the right person.” – Gail Anderson
Anderson began teaching in 1992.
“As an educator, as a professor, I see [TV] influencing students,” she added. “So there’s so many ways you can get into a career in forensic science, and there’s so many different careers in forensic science so the students don’t really have a clear directive [on] how to go about becoming a forensic scientist. I frequently find students in my third year class, which is a class aimed at non-scientists to explain what forensic science actually is and they think, ‘Hey, this is it. This is what I want. I want to be a forensic scientist,’ and I say, ‘Well, sorry but you’ve wasted the last three years. You need to get a science degree, you can’t do this with an arts degree’. It’s very disillusioning for the students, I think, and very unfair.”
When asked, Anderson said the decomposing remains at homicide crime scenes don’t affect a person as much as one might think it would.
“It’s obviously not really for the very squeamish, because you’re dealing with highly decomposed remains,” she said. “But the bodies that I deal with, they’re highly decomposed. So it’s not like I would recognize them if I knew them in life or anything like that. And you know you’re there for a very important purpose and that’s to try and identify this person and catch the bad guy…make sure the police catch the right person, not the wrong person. My work can exonerate as much as it can convict somebody.”
Anderson will be speaking at the University of Regina on Oct. 17 in the Education Building, room 193. The lecture will contain some graphic content.
“It’s a law lecture, it’s supposed to be more of a general talk. It’ll be fun and entertaining, but very serious at the same time. We’ll be showing real case histories, real histories, real court cases and try to illustrate how the sciences is actually used so [that] people actually understand when they see it on TV or they hear about it, what is the actual truth of the matter.”