Skip to Global Navigation Skip to Local Site Navigation Skip to Main Content

Algae Growth on Submerged Human Hair

Ask The Algae: A biology student and her mentor devise a novel way to determine how long corpses have been underwater to aid law enforcement efforts.

Anyone who has watched mafia movies knows what a mobster means when he says he is going to make someone "sleep with the fishes." But this method of disposing of evidence on-screen has corollaries in real life, which can present real problems for law enforcement.

Currently, there is no good method to determine how long a body has been underwater. Such knowledge could potentially provide detectives important insight into when a crime was committed.Thanks to a Loyola student's honors thesis project, scientists may be one step closer to solving this conundrum.

Recent graduate Shelly Wu and her faculty mentor, James Wee, Ph.D., provost distinguished professor of biological sciences, monitored the growth of algae on submerged human hair and found its proliferation to be a potentially reliable time marker. For the project, Wu affixed standardized bunches of hair - clipped from her own head - to plastic foam mannequin heads she submerged in a freshwater garden pond and a brackish canal. She collaborated with James L. Pinckney, Ph.D., at the University of South Carolina to complete sophisticated measurements of the amount of Chlorophyll a - found in algae - on the hair, a method that could help investigators determine how long a cadaver has been submersed in water.

Wu documented her findings in a paper she co-authored with Wee and Loyola biology professor Craig Hood, Ph.D., which Wu presented at the 2013 Annual Meeting of the Botanical Society of America. She traveled from the University of Oklahoma, where is continuing her studies of algae ecology as a graduate student, to the 2014 Joint Aquatic Sciences meeting in May 2014 to present a follow-up.

By presenting at a scholarly conference as an undergraduate, Wu said, she gained yet another head start on many of her peers in building the complete set of skills required of a working scientist.

"A large component of being successful in science is presenting your work," Wu said. "It's how you establish yourself in the field, interact with and make an impression on experts. As an undergraduate, it was an enriching experience."

The experience Wu gained at Loyola put her ahead of many of her colleagues in graduate school - some, she said, have never conducted any independent research. As is true for many young Loyola researchers, the hands-on learning she engaged in here made a huge difference.

"It got me in the door," she said. "I was accepted to all of the graduate programs I applied for. If it wasn't for undergraduate research, I probably wouldn't be here."