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Entomology students take ‘CSI’-type class

By Linda Breazeale
MSU Ag Communications

MISSISSIPPI STATE – A handful of Mississippi State University entomology students spent their spring semester learning how to be crime scene investigators or expert witnesses in a courtroom.

Mississippi State University junior Emily Davis (top) of Vicksburg sets a pitfall trap to collect beetle specimens for a class on forensic entomology. Her professor placed a euthanized hog in an enclosure in a remote location for students to observe the insects that are attracted to the site. (Photo by Mississippi State University’s Ag Communications/Linda Breazeale)

Trey Schubert (bottom) of Byhalia collects maggots from a decomposing hog as part of a forensic entomology class. Schubert, a junior majoring in agronomy at Mississippi State University, and his classmates studied conditions and collected insect samples from a mock “crime scene” created during the spring semester by his professor. (Photo by Mississippi State University’s Ag Communications/Linda Breazeale)

Their teacher, Jerome Goddard, has been an expert witness on both sides of court cases and understands the importance of knowing details to defend or challenge crime scene findings.

“It’s not just about the insects found at the scene; you need to know the weather conditions and the environment around the body,” he said. “From an entomology standpoint, it’s important to know what is typical for insects in that area in specific conditions.”

Goddard, an associate Extension professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology, is teaching the first “special topics” class designed to study a crime scene scenario. He obtained a hog that had been euthanized by MSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and the body was placed in a secure, kennel-like enclosure in a remote area of the Leveck Animal Research Center, commonly known as South Farm.

“Different students from the class went out five days a week to collect insect specimens and make general observations of the ‘crime scene.’” he said. “Their evaluations included temperature readings from the body and the air around it, and they compared their measurements with those from the nearest weather station.”

Goddard said pathologists would have other ways to determine the exact time of death, but the insects present can provide a broad window of time that the body has been exposed to the elements.

“Bugs will find a way to get to a body, and the ones that come to remains change through time,” he said. “Certain blowflies often find a body within five minutes of death. Beetles are the last visitors by the time only hair and bones remain.”

This was the first entomology class for Emily Davis of Vicksburg, a junior majoring in biochemistry with a concentration in forensic science. She plans to pursue a career in forensic pathology. She said in addition to insect species, she learned about collecting samples.

“This was a very interesting class. Science has always interested me, but I haven’t had much experience in entomology,” Davis said. “This was my first postmortem study.”

Florencia Meyer, assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology, teaches introduction to forensic sciences and addresses basic entomology aspects in a couple of her lectures. Goddard gives a guest lecture in her class focusing on the less obvious applications of forensic entomology. Students in her class also made trips to the “crime scene” for observations.

“The opportunity to observe directly the different stages of decomposition is actually unique,” Meyer said. “The students were really excited to see in person what we covered in lectures. We were lucky that our visits coincided with Dr. Goddard’s visits to the pig. He provided additional insights about what was happening and shared the details with us.”

Meyer is already planning for the next class.

“This was my first time visiting a decomposing corpse as well, so I am working on a checklist for students to use when writing down their observations,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to work across subject areas within our department.”


Released: May 3, 2012
Contact: Dr. Jerome Goddard, (662) 325-2085, or
Dr. Florencia Meyer, (662) 325-7734

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