Death and What the Future Holds

DEMOREST– Studying cadavers, Piedmont student Veronica Cappas may have uncovered a secret that can help future forensic investigations — researchers may be able to better determine the time of death through bacteria. 

At the 2020 Piedmont College Symposium, Cappas gave a presentation on her senior research regarding the possibility of using microbes associated with decomposition to determine the post mortem interval. Her research, the first of its kind at Piedmont, is important as that it is in an area with minimal prior knowledge. Austin thinks that will soon change, and Cappas’ research will be the foundation for future study.  

“You’ll see that over the next decade or so, maybe even the next five years, that Veronica and Veronica’s research is going to be referenced an awful lot as providing that real foundational understanding of the microbial succession during the decomposition process”, Dr. Austin states. 

Cappas, a dual major in biology and forensics, also received guidance from Forensics Professor Bruce Willis. He provided aid with her data retrieval from the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, as well as field expertise in death investigations and forensic science.

As with any experimental research, there are factors that are out of the researcher’s control. Cappas was able to control much of her data as much of it was indoors or technological, but there was one area that could not be controlled. Willis instructed that they were not able to control the weather in Tennessee or the ambient temperatures of the environment and bodies. During her time at the Body Farm, Cappas detailed several factors that she would not be able to change.

“I could not control how many donors were going to be at the FAC or what states they were going to be in,” she said. “Due to the time constraint of my research, I could do multiple collections. We only had enough time and resources to make one trip to the FAC.” 

Her favorite part of her project was being able to visit and utilize the Forensic Anthropology Center. Cappas would like to go back and expand her sample group if she were to do further research down the road. The goal of her research was to add to the current knowledge and provide valuable information for students coming after her to build off of. Her research was investigative and acts as a building block for future experiments in her fields. 

Whatever her future holds, Austin says Cappas’ groundbreaking research is a testament to her character and predicts great things for the student.

“Veronica is fairly rare in terms of her abilities and her work ethic and her drive. And to be a double major and do the level of research that she has done, be a student-athlete, have a 4.0, gotten into all the graduate schools she applied to … she’s in an enviable position at this point in her career.”

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