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Career Profile

Shari Forbes (she/her/elle)

Forensic Scientist
Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières
Shari Forbes à l'extérieur du centre de décomposition humaine
Shari Forbes à l'extérieur du centre de décomposition humaine
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I conduct research to understand how the human body decomposes in our unique Canadian environment.

About me

I was born/grew up in: Sydney, NSW, Australia

I now live in:  Montreal, QC

I completed my training/education at: University of Technology Sydney, Australia. I completed a BSc (Hons) in Applied Chemistry-Forensic Science and a PhD in Science (focus in forensic chemistry)

What I do at work

The majority of my work involves conducting research in the fields of forensic taphonomy and decomposition chemistry. I study what happens to the body after death. I also study the information we gain can be used to assist forensic death investigations. I am the Director of Canada's only human decomposition facility. Here people generously donate their bodies to science so that we can investigate the biological, chemical and physical processes of human decomposition in our unique Quebec climate.

One of my areas of research involves collecting the odour produced by human remains. Our goal is to identify the chemical compounds in decomposition odour. We do this using advanced chemical instrumentation known as multidimensional gas chromatography. This is important research.  Currently, we use specially trained dogs to locate human remains. These dogs are using decomposition odour to locate deceased persons. We don’t know which compounds from the decomposition odour that they are using. Once we discover those compounds, we can increase their ability to locate victims more quickly. This will be very important in difficult search environments like mass disasters.

Forensic science involves trying to solve a puzzle using science, where the puzzle is a crime. My team uses many different areas of science to study human decomposition. All of this requires problem solving. In addition to decomposition chemistry, we study other areas including:

  • Forensic entomology. This is using insects to help us to estimate time since death.
  • Forensic biology. This is the use of recovered DNA to identify a victim.
  • Forensic microbiology. The bacteria within the body and in the environment can tell us how long a victim has been in that environment.
  • Facial reconstruction. This is creating a recognisable image to assist a loved one to identify a missing person.

Each of these areas requires us to think of new ways to study these processes and discover new information not previously known for our continental (cold) climate in Canada. Our scientific backgrounds have trained us to think critically about these questions. It also helps us identify methods we should use to answer these questions using analytical skills.

My career path is

I enjoyed science when I was in high school. I liked that it was both theoretical and practical. It allowed me to learn in a way that I understood and found interesting. I also enjoyed reading, particularly crime novels, when I was a student. I found this to be a great release from schoolwork and allowed me to be immersed in something different. When it came time to choose a university degree, I naturally paired these two things that I found enjoyable. As a result, I chose a forensic science degree. I enjoyed it so much that I continued my studies for a doctoral degree. It was during this time that I became interested in the study of human decomposition. This was thanks to my two supervisors who encouraged me to further my studies. They were an inspiration for the beginning of my career in this field and I have enjoyed every moment since!

I am motivated by

Research involves constantly asking questions. It also involves testing hypotheses, finding answers, and discovering that those answers lead to even more questions! For this reason, every day is different in my work. I love discovering new things and gaining new knowledge. I enjoy seeing my students learn something new, and in some cases, proving myself wrong and starting all over again. This is what excites me and keeps me motivated to constantly solve new puzzles.

There are only 12 human decomposition facilities worldwide. Ours is the only one in Canada's unique climate. Although it might seem difficult to work with human remains, I am constantly inspired by the people who donate their bodies. They are making a huge contribution to science. They are our teachers and we learn something new from them every day. This means that everything we discover is new information. As a result, every day we are helping law enforcement agencies to improve the way they solve crimes.

How I affect peoples’ lives

My research helps police and forensic services to search for, recover, and identify human remains. This can include missing persons, homicide victims or victims of mass disasters. Our research can help to find people more quickly, and to recover their remains from challenging environments. It also help us identify an unidentified body, and to allow their remains to be returned to their families. It can also help to prosecute an offender of a crime and ensure that justice is served. This is important for the victim but also for their loved ones and for the safety of the public.

Outside of work I

I enjoy reading (especially crime novels!) to relax. I equally enjoy being outside, especially with my high intensity dog who loves to walk, hike, swim, kayak, or SUP with me. Anytime I can spend in the sun is a bonus. I like playing beach volleyball or netball (an Australian sport) or just being active.

My advice to others

The same advice that most people will give, find something you are passionate about and make that your career. It is the best way to be motivated by what you do. It also helps you stay excited by each new day and what it holds. Forensic science is constantly developing and will always have new puzzles to solve.

When I was a student, I enjoyed:
  • Geography
  • Foods and Nutrition
  • Home Economics
  • Science
  • Technology
When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:
  • Brought people together
  • Liked helping people
  • Organized activities for my friends
  • Was motivated by success
  • Engaged in volunteer activities
  • Liked being given specific instructions
  • Liked reading
  • Felt great satisfaction in getting good grades
  • Wasn't sure what I wanted to do
  • Learned best "by doing"

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Partners

Prospective Medical Professionals

Let’s Talk Science appreciates the support of the Prospective Medical Professionals (PuMP) organization in connecting us with this individual.

Prospective Medical Professionals (PuMP), is a federally registered charity on a mission to help Canadian high school and post-secondary students understand different career pathways in life and health sciences. PuMP connects students with learning opportunities, as well as encouraging community involvement by providing resources, local events and conferences. PuMP intends to create transparency between students and this ever-changing, competitive field, aims to empower youth to continue exploring possible careers in healthcare. For more information check them out at https://pumprofessionals.org/.

 

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