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Nov. 5, 2014

M. Eric Benbow: Why do you study dead people?

Nov. 5, 2014

Eric Benbow is an MSU entomologist and osteopathic medical specialist. He received a U.S. Department of Justice grant to partner with the city of Detroit and use his scientific expertise with bugs and bacteria to help solve murders. 

Death is a difficult process for anyone to reconcile, but I think it may be even more so for those who choose careers that deal with death, in some form, on a routine basis. Whether it is an oncologist giving terminal news to a family, a medical examiner investigating the means and circumstances of a recently living person to the homicide investigator or attorney that critically evaluates the gruesome details of a violent act that most people cannot fathom. Those that routinely are surrounded by death are constantly reminded of our destiny.

As a scientist who studies the ecological processes of death, I think about this inevitability when writing grants and manuscripts or when I am actively collecting insect or microbe samples from donated human remains. I also reflect on the human capacity to commit violent acts on other humans, often when I am attending academic presentations related to forensics.

These reflections during normal work activities are quickly compartmentalized so as to maintain objectivity to the professional tasks at hand. The compartmentalization also allows me to function as a friend and family member, without dwelling on the unfathomable ways at which some people die.

Perhaps this is similar to how others have reconciled working with death while living in a way that in many ways ignores or defies it. I also reflect when I am asked, for instance, “How do you do that kind of research; isn’t it depressing?” Those questions get the easier answers that are fairly well rehearsed and optimistically honest: “The data I generate and the research that I do may ultimately help other people and contribute to the greater good of humanity.”

My passion as a scientist is to discover; my discoveries can be as basic as understanding how an insect lives in an environment with limited oxygen (e.g., in a corpse)—what physiological adaptations does it have to deal with low oxygen? But the real feeling of success comes in the form of being able to apply or translate that basic science in ways that benefit humanity.

When I do basic forensic research, I always know that this research may ultimately benefit investigations with legal importance. This is a process that thrives to achieve truth and justice when death presents itself to the unfortunate person, family or community that must endure it. I rest hoping that my role in this process can bring peace and closure to those individuals.