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Curtin graduate discovers clues to aid suspicious death investigations

Media release

Forensic research conducted by a Curtin University PhD student has identified key chemical markers of decomposition, which could significantly assist investigations into suspicious deaths.

Recent graduate Dr Lisa Swann completed her project, Chemical Markers of Decomposition for Forensic Science, under the guidance of Curtin Associate Professor of Forensic and Analytical Chemistry, Simon Lewis. Dr Swann developed sensitive and selective analytical methods that determined the identity of a variety of organic compounds in mammal decomposition fluid.
Dr Swann said she was pleased to have the opportunity to focus her thesis more closely on the study of mammalian soft tissue decomposition, as it was an exciting and emerging area in forensic science.

“An understanding of decomposition is extremely important for investigations of suspicious deaths. The decomposition process can complicate the determination of the cause of death and make estimation of the time-since-death, referred to as post-mortem interval, very difficult,” Dr Swann said.

“The first step to understanding this chemistry is identifying the compounds present in decomposition fluid and determining when they are produced.”

Using pig carcasses as a model, Dr Swann used samples collected from a number of decomposition trials to develop several analytical methodologies from her findings.

“The trials have allowed me to identify the key chemical markers of decomposition and the development of this analytical methodology provides a basis for future research into the potential use of chemistry measurements to aid in establishing post-mortem intervals and identifying concealed graves,” she said.

Associate Professor Lewis said the results of Dr Swann’s research also had the potential to be applied to the food industry.

“Many of the compounds Lisa was investigating are also implicated in food spoilage, including packaged meat products for example, and so there is a possibility of her research being applied to the area of food safety,” Associate Professor Lewis said.

Dr Swann’s research has been published in a range of international journals, including the prestigious Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Her most recent research was published in the journal Analytical Methods and is currently available for download, at:


Andrea Barnard, Public Relations, Curtin University
Tel: 08 9266 4241, Mobile: 0401 103 755, Email: