Identifying the origin of human remains using geochemical techniques

Project Description

While the use of isotopes to track various environmental phenomena is often used by geochemists, it is a relatively new application in forensic science. However, isotopic studies of human remains have become of increasing interest in recent years due to the potential to aid in the provenancing of the remains of missing individuals. Strontium isotopes particularly, in teeth, bone and hair have been utilised increasingly within forensic anthropology studies for this application, because of the close link between the Sr isotope signatures of the bedrock underlying the homes of indigenous populations, the crops and animals that they cultivate, and ultimately the Sr that is incorporated in their bodies from their diet.
Despite comprehensive contemporary studies into individuals from the United Kingdom, United States and Mexico, in Guatemala studies have focused largely on the historical habits of archaeological populations. With a long-standing historical narrative of ‘Missing’ individuals through decades of ‘civil war’ (1960-1996) to the contemporary, i.e. border crossers to the U.S. seeking economic prosperity, the need to help provenance individuals is clear.
For this project, we aim to expand on an earlier pilot study on Sr isotopes in human hair by examining the usefullness of fingernails in the tracing the origins of human remains. This study will focus upon material from known, living individuals for whom background lifestyle information and geographic origin is readily available, but will form part of a long-term objective of evaluating the utility of fingernails in tracing the origins of displaced individuals where very little is known about their origins.
The project will be undertaken in the geochemistry laboratories at the University of Leeds and also within the Department of Chemistry and Forensics at Nottingham Trent University with project partner Dr Ryan Austin. The successful application will learn how to prepare samples for analysis, chemical extraction techniques, and the fundamentals of thermal ionization mass spectrometry to obtain the Sr isotope values required for this study.

Supervisor & Contact

Jason Harvey,

How to Apply

  1. Complete the online REP application form, one for each project of interest, including a copy of your CV.
  2. Complete the EDI form (only one is needed, you do not need to submit more than one if you apply for multiple projects).  Although this is optional, if places are over-subscribed, preference will be given to under-represented groups.