What happens AFTER death? Professor Shari Forbes finds out
Death keeps no calendar, but Professor Shari Forbes’ research on body decomposition works towards establishing how long it has been since a person has died.
Professor Forbes was the driving force behind the establishment of the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) in 2015, located in the Blue Mountains. It’s the nation’s first facility that allows scientists to study the decomposition of human cadavers.
“Most of my work is focused on odour profiling, and predominantly as it applies to forensic evidence,” Forbes explains.
“What that means is I’m particularly interested in the odour produced by forensic evidence and how detector dogs use that odour to locate the item of interest.”
Professor Forbes studies the chemical processes that occur in soft tissue decomposition and uses this information to consult with police on forensic casework to locate and study human remains.
She is accustomed to inquiries regarding the unique nature of her work, but says, “Everything I do is driven by police questions, by their needs, what they want to see out in the field.”
Born in Sydney, NSW, Prof Forbes grew up in Brewarrina Dubbo before returning to Sydney to complete her schooling at Hornsby Girls High School. She began her Bachelor of Science in Applied Chemistry and Forensic Science (receiving Honours) at UTS in 1996, and completed a PhD in Science with a focus in Forensic Chemistry in 2003.
As the winner of the UTS Alumni Award for Excellence in the Faculty of Science, Forbes says her specified interest in decomposition was sparked during her honours year.
“I looked at the list of honours projects, there was a project about decomposition in cemeteries and I thought, “Oh that sounds so fascinating!”
Prof Forbes' work has taken her across the world, including to Canada where she was appointed Assistant Professor and Founding Director of the Forensic Science program at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT), where she also held a Canada Research Chair in Decomposition Chemistry from 2007 to 2012.
After being promoted to Associate Professor at UOIT in 2010, Forbes had the opportunity to teach forensic science at Chaminade University of Honolulu for six months before returning to UTS in 2012 as a Professor and ARC Future Fellow.
Her pioneering contributions to forensic science have earned her numerous positions such as a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales, an invited member of Australian Academy of Forensic Sciences and as a committee member of the Australian and New Zealand Forensic Science Society (ANZFSS).
Having established AFTER, Forbes will be returning to Canada to continue her work at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières as the Canada 150 Research Chair in Forensic Thanatology.
There, she’ll be investigating how bodies decompose in the sub zero temperatures of Canadian winters, rather than the temperate climate of Sydney’s surrounds.”
“I am excited to be back in Canada and to have the opportunity to open their first human decomposition facility. The climate is such a contrast to Australia that I am going to have to learn the process of decomposition all over again. But that is what I love about research – that I learn something new every day of my career!”