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Remains of the Day

Anthropology major's research focuses on rates of decomposition

Murder investigations on television often wrap up neatly in an hour-long episode. In real life, it’s a lot more complex, as Sarah Calis, ’24, is learning through her undergraduate research. 

Sarah, an anthropology major (cultural anthropology concentration) from Fall River, is studying the myriad factors that affect the decomposition rate of bodies. She hopes to collect data that helps investigators better determine when a victim died. 

“It’s definitely made my experience here at Bridgewater State more fulfilling,” said Sarah, who aspires to continue the research while studying forensic anthropology in graduate school. “I’ve had first-hand experience in the field, learned a lot, and built a lot of skills as a student and person.” 

For her project, which is supported by BSU’s Adrian Tinsley Program for Undergraduate Research and Creative Work, Sarah placed crates in the Great Hill woods containing turkey, chicken and pork meat. The crates allow insects to enter and the meat to have contact with the ground but help prevent predators from absconding with a sample. Sarah checks on the crates frequently and captures predators on a camera. 

“I’m looking at insect activity, how the weather is, if there are any scavengers,” said Sarah, who is minoring in criminal justice, American studies, and Middle East and North African studies. “I’m taking notes on changes in color and any odor present.” 

While she is not using cadavers, the research is applicable to human decomposition. Pigs in particular have flesh and muscle composition similar to humans, said Dr. Ellen Ingmanson, an anthropology professor who is mentoring Sarah.   

Much decomposition research takes place in the southern United States, so Sarah hopes to provide useful data from New England’s more variable climate. She is also studying how smoke from recent Canadian wildfires reduced insect activity and affected decomposition. 

The project allowed Sarah to improve her public speaking abilities and gain research experience that is an increasingly important differentiator in graduate school admissions.  

She embraced every opportunity at BSU, including traveling to Morocco and the Arabian Gulf region for study tours. Sarah presented a different research project about students on the autism spectrum at an international education conference in Jordan.  

“She has been enthusiastic from the beginning,” Ingmanson said. “She has the curiosity to ask questions and go deeper, to read outside of the (course) requirements and explore further.” 

Sarah appreciates Ingmanson’s support and willingness to troubleshoot problems and brainstorm ideas – especially because Sarah’s family gets grossed out hearing about her research. 

“It’s been wonderful having her as a mentor,” she said. “She’s always there to guide me in the right way.” 

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