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Crime scene investigation: Student's researcher could aid forensic investigators

April 5, 2013

Human hair could provide clues for forensic investigators trying to determine how long corpses are underwater, helpful in calculating the time of death. The clues may lie in algae that grow on each individual hair strand, according to novel research by Loyola University New Orleans student Shelly Wu. She will present her project’s findings during Loyola’s Biology Undergraduate Research Symposium Friday, April 5. The symposium features more than a dozen undergraduate students presenting ground-breaking research.

“There’s currently no good way for forensic scientists to tell how long a cadaver has been in the water,” said Loyola biology professor James Wee, Ph.D., who serves as a faculty adviser on Wu’s project. Most researchers studying body decomposition underwater use baby pig cadavers, according to Wee. But he and Wu had a different idea.

Wu literally lost her hair for the research. She used her own hair and donated hair from Wee’s wife as well as another student researcher in Wee’s lab to fashion standardized bunches, which were then attached to Styrofoam mannequin heads. To study how algae grew on the hair over time, Wu submerged the heads in a freshwater garden pond and the brackish water of the canal in her own backyard in Slidell. She did the same with synthetic hair.

Wu collaborated with James L. Pinckney, Ph.D., at the University of South Carolina to complete sophisticated measurements of the amount of Chlorophyll a —found in algae—on the hair. That data could lead to a useful, new method for crime scene investigators looking to crack a case. Wu and Wee will conduct follow-up experiments later this spring.

Wu will highlight her latest findings at the Biology Undergraduate Research Symposium scheduled from 12:30 to 5 p.m. in Nunemaker Auditorium located on the third floor of Monroe Hall on Loyola’s main campus. Her presentation on “Assessing Periphyton Accumulation on Human Hair Submerged in Aquatic Environments for Determination of Postmortem Submersion Interval” is scheduled for 4 p.m. The symposium is followed by a crawfish social from 5 to 7:30 p.m. in Dixon Court at the St. Charles Ave. entrance of the Communications/Music Complex.

Wu, who has put herself through school and served as a work study student, sought out and received two grants to fund her research—including more than $2,300 from a Loyola Student Government Association Richard Frank Grant and a $4,500 Supervised Undergraduate Research Experience grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents as a part of the National Science Foundation-funded Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research program.

Wee, who has been a Loyola faculty member for 25 years, saw something special in Wu. As a work study student, she was always enthusiastic and willing to handle extra work, Wee said. That work ethic helped her blossom as a student scientist. “She picked up the ball and ran and ran with it. I watched her confidence as a scientist grow steadily,” Wee said.

Wu will attend graduate school at the University of Oklahoma in the fall and plans to continue this research as well as explore new research in algal ecology.

“I thank God for giving me the opportunity to work with my adviser Dr. Wee and conduct research as an undergraduate in a field that I am very passionate about. This research experience for the last two years has definitely prepared me for graduate school and will make my transition smooth,” Wu said.

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