Top Ten Scientists

March 2004

Show me your scientists, and I'll tell you your future. By this measure, Tennessee is in good hands. Without fanfare, our state has amassed a scientific community worthy of celebration. Hidden away in laboratories from Kingsport to Memphis, they are paving the way to Mars and beyond, fighting AIDS, preserving endangered species and gleaning information from the dead.

It’s not easy to rank the scientists working in such diverse fields as neuroscience, nuclear physics, geology and forensic research, so fortunately, a comprehensive listing and qualitative ranking was not our goal. What lies before the reader is a sampling of some of the most prolific, accomplished, as well as up-and-coming scientists among us. Looking at the these ten scientists affirms an image of Tennessee as a state steadily moving from its agricultural past towards the cutting-edge research and development frontiers of tomorrow.

Many of the scientists on the list have settled here after meandering journeys across the globe. Taking jobs at Eastman Chemical, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Vanderbilt University and elsewhere, they have boosted the national and even international reputations of those organizations. Some of them should be credited with drawing to our state scores of younger scientists seeking inspiration and guidance through proximity and mentorship. This list should serve as a reminder: Our health, as well as the health of our state's economy, may well depend on the scribbled formulas, computer models and incipient test tube miracles in our laboratories right now.

Slingshots and Robots
Steve Canfield
Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering
Tennessee Technological University

For Steve Canfield, a 34-year old associate professor of mechanical engineering at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, working on a demanding project for NASA doesn't mean his mind is always lost in space. On top of creating a new source of energy for orbiting spacecraft, Canfield finds time to delve into earthly matters, such as building robots to clean up dangerous industrial sites and putting together equipment for disabled children.

Canfield is the leading researcher in Tennessee on devising a method to apply Earth¹s magnetic force to boost various types of spacecraft as they orbit our planet. NASA qualifies Canfield¹s work as high-risk but high-payoff because it marries two new concepts of alternative energy in space. While traditional rockets push against their own exhaust, Canfield is convinced that electrodynamic tethers could shove a spacecraft against the Earth's magnetic field, transferring the rotational angular momentum of the Earth to the orbital angular momentum of the spacecraft. In order to eliminate reliance on current methods of boosting rockets into space and helping them stay in orbit, Canfield hopes to merge the tethers, which collect magnetic energy from the Earth¹s ionosphere but cannot rise above a certain limit, with momentum exchange tethers, which conduct this energy to a spacecraft. With such technology, one could essentially drive a rocket forever in space, feeding off magnetic forces of surrounding planets.

Canfield’s colleagues hail him as the youngest among the brightest scientists in Tennessee. But he doesn¹t hear those compliments often because when his mind is not wrapped around finding energy in space, it designs robots that would replace humans in cleaning up industrial sites. With a few patents already pending, Canfield believes that in 10 to 15 years disposable robots will perform surgeries, clean up boilers at power plants and help examine contaminated areas.

Between working on those projects and teaching classes at Tennessee Tech, Canfield also guides his students in the building of equipment for children suffering from dwarfism, cerebral palsy and other ailments. In the process, Canfield grooms students to become caring citizens on Earth who are capable of taking his research beyond the Earth¹s orbit. Up, up and away.

The Best Offense...
Peter Doherty
Infection & Host Defense Program
St. Jude Children¹s Research Hospital

Peter Doherty found the hit man of the immune system‹a killer T-cell that attacks viruses and destroys them. The discovery earned Doherty and Swiss scientist Rolf Zinkernagel their 1996 Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine.

To be exact, Doherty and Zinkernagel discovered cell-mediated immune defense, or the way white blood cells recognize and kill virus-infected cells. Their findings lit the way to change the immune system in cases when it fails to respond sufficiently to invading microorganisms or cancer metastasis. The knowledge of the inner defenses of the immune system also allows doctors to diminish or change unwanted immune reactions towards the body¹s own tissue, such as those occurring in rheumatic diseases.

Today Doherty, a native of Brisbane, Australia, labors to further understand immune defenses at St. Jude Hospital in Memphis, where he landed after a long chain of scientific appointments around the world. Such is his reputation that Doherty himself is now a magnet drawing other acclaimed scientists to St. Jude.

When Doherty and Zinkernagel began their research in the late 1960s and early 1970s, researches already knew how antibodies, the circulating defense molecules, recognize and kill foreign bacteria. It was not clear how white blood cells recognize and kill virus-infected cells without destroying the normal uninfected cells.

Doherty’s work made it possible to understand that the true function of transplantation antigens is not to provide an obstacle to transplantation. Instead, their function is to bind themselves to viral molecules and inform white blood cells as to whether they should become aggressive or remain inactive toward the virus. Consequently, it became clear that each individual, thanks to his or her unique set of transplantation antigens, also carries his or her unique immune system.

As Doherty toured the United States giving his first talks on T-cells in the 1970s, “those ideas both contradicted the accepted North American model for the role of immune response genes and turned the perception of the transplantation system on its head,” he recalled in his Nobel speech. “Many people have told me years later that they heard this seminar, came away with the sense that the findings were significant, but did not fully grasp the import. Evidently some were also infuriated by what we were saying.”

At 63, Doherty jokes that he should be doing age research instead of working in pediatrics. He has high hopes for St. Jude, “a great institution” that has the talent to find a cure for AIDS and other ailments.

“Ideas interest me. Intellectually, I march to the beat of my own drum and have little interest in competing in races. There are too few people working in the area of viral pathogenesis and immunity, too little funding, too many problems and too little time.”

Knoxville’s Noah
Lou Gross
Professor of ecology, evolutionary biology and mathematics
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The endangered spray toad living in a Tanzania waterfall and the rare Florida panther that roams the Everglades have one thing in common: Lou Gross may be the last hope for them both.

At UT-K since 1979, Gross is the mastermind behind elaborate computer models of environment now gaining popularity across the world. Using data from satellites and radio collars that track animals and survey landscapes, Gross logs the information into computer networks and builds replicas of real-life environments to save endangered populations and record human impact on the environment.

But you¹d hardly peg Gross as a species-preserving Noah of the Twenty-first Century when you see him working as sound engineer at Knoxville¹s Laurel Theatre or producing folk music shows at the local WUOT-FM. Hanging with people like Bob Douglas, the legendary fiddler who gave his last concert at Laurel at the age of 100, Gross says he gains inspiration for his environmental endeavors. He¹s also been known to perform the occasional Cajun and contra dance.

In his research, the 52-year-old Philadelphia native works with UT-K’s acclaimed computer whiz Jack Dongarra, builder of an intra-campus computer grid that allows South Florida specialists to transfer sample data from the Everglades to Gross in Knoxville. Before the grid, the specialists had to ship data via overnight delivery.

“It's a great age to combine computational science with biology,” Gross says.

Since he began his work at the Institute for Environmental Modeling in the late 1980s, such high profile entities as the National Science Foundation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency have used Gross’ work in protecting the environment. In South Florida alone, Gross led the way in efforts to save the Florida panther, the Everglades kite, the wood stork, not to mention their prey‹deer, snails and fish. Gross’ models allow groups of scientists to track, for example, levels of water in the Everglades to restore the natural patterns of water exchange, which is crucial to survival of many species. “Even in the short term, the Everglades models we produced directly affected planning for removing canals and changing the way the water flows in South Florida,” Gross says.

Aside from computational ecology, Gross’ group has developed a program for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to sample soil cores and determine levels of contamination in a radioactive field.

In late January, Gross traveled to a World Bank meeting on behalf of the Tanzanian government to discuss the effects on the environment produced by the dam that supplies one-third of the electricity in the African country. At the meeting, Gross literally stood out as the last hope of survival for the Kihansi Spray Toad, whose environment was affected by the construction of the dam. Gross’ models might pave the way to restore the toad’s environment elsewhere.

The Clock is Ticking
Julia Hurwitz
HIV Vaccine Development
St. Jude Children¹s Research Hospital

Today, 43 million people are infected with AIDS. Every day, 8,000 of the infected HIV patients die, which totals three million deaths a year. In other words, a population equal to three cities the size of Memphis get completely wiped out by HIV each year. Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see why Julia Hurwitz feels a sense of urgency about her job as an AIDS vaccine researcher at St. Jude. And when Hurwitz says there is something wrong with the system, the opinion comes from long, studied involvement, not hasty conclusion.

The system in question is the drug approval process in the United States. Currently, she says, the country is too fearful of taking risks in testing new medicines‹risks it took without flinching while developing the medicines of today.

In charge of researching an AIDS vaccine at St. Jude, Hurwitz has seen firsthand how nimble and evasive the virus can be, and how ponderous and rigid the United States’ drug testing and approval process is in comparison.

Currently, Hurwitz and clinician Karen Slobod are the principal investigators in the development of a promising vaccine cocktail that will combine the qualities of two different cells in the immune system to ward off the AIDS virus. Early on, Hurwitz saw that all the researchers working on AIDS vaccines across the world were concentrating too much on single-cell approaches, without tapping the multiple defense layers of the immune system. But since HIV can attack on multiple fronts, it’s important that vaccines defend on multiple fronts as well.

Hurwitz says a significant obstacle to HIV vaccine development lies in the remarkable diversity of envelope proteins, the major targets of neutralizing antibodies. Nonhuman primate studies showed that single-envelope vaccines have protected against only a small percentage of viral challenges. Similarly, in clinical trials, single-envelope vaccines have failed to prevent break-through infections when challenge viruses were inevitably mismatched with the vaccine. To protect humans from infection by any isolate of HIV, Hurwitz and her group began preparing vaccine cocktails combining multiple envelopes from distinct viral isolates. Testing several methods of vaccine delivery in small animals has shown that successive immunizations with the so-called envelope can trigger a strong response from the neutralizing antibody. The promise of this system has led to the initiation of clinical trials, which will ultimately show whether cocktail vaccines would prevent human HIV infections.

For any optimism this development might present, Hurwitz offers a cautionary example. As daunting a foe as the HIV virus has proven to be, the ultimate challenge may lurk in regulatory morass that awaits even the most promising research. “We¹ve come 80% of the way, but the last 20% may be tough,” Hurwitz says. She knows firsthand just how much the final 20% can slow the process.

In one of Hurwitz’s earlier research triumphs—the discovery of a parainfluenza vaccine that attacks a virus causing babies to turn blue—the process was as far along as the FDA-approved animal trials for the vaccine. The testing went perfectly—the animals injected answered negative; the ones that were not registered positive. It was 1996. More than seven years later, the clinical trials of the vaccine are just now gaining momentum. Translate that pace of regulatory process to Hurwitz’s current work, with three million lives each year held in the balance. It doesn’t take a mathematician to add up the cost.

The Mind¹s Eye
Jon Kaas
Professor, Psychology & Cell Biology
Vanderbilt University

In the 1960s, long before the term neuroscience was coined, Kaas discovered that processing visual stimulation takes up one-third of the brain’s activity in humans. Prevailing opinion at the time didn¹t support Kaas’ discovery. So much for prevailing opinion.

When Kaas started his research on the brain in primates, “everything was terra incognita,” says one colleague. “Today, you don¹t open the textbook in neuroscience without seeing Jon¹s name.”

Mapping of the visual cortex of the brain allowed Kaas to better understand how the brain processes information it receives from the eyes, ears and skin, and how it controls the motion of arms, legs and other muscle systems. By Kaas’ own estimation, humanity is now able to understand 25-50% about its collective brain. Considering that 100 years ago the figure hovered around 1%, Kaas is looking excitedly at ways his discoveries will augment treatment of brain injuries.

Twenty years ago, scientists were convinced that after a certain age the neurons in human brains stopped making new connections, or, in the vernacular, the brain was “losing neurons,” causing mental abilities to decline in adults. But Kaas and his research group proved that the adult brain is capable of forming new connections, especially in response to severe trauma or injury. That insight had caused a major change in the way medical researchers view brain injuries, giving clues to ways in which the human brain can restore itself, with the help from doctors, of course, from very few existing connections.

At 66, Kaas brings in half a million dollars in research funding a year to Vanderbilt and has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. More than anyone else, Kaas understands the dangers of slowing down. He has seen too many people deteriorate quickly and lose cognitive functions upon retirement, having made the decision to switch to a “simpler” lifestyle. Gaining inspiration from people like actor Christopher Reeve, Kaas advocates constant brain workouts. For himself, once the grants run out and retirement looms, Kaas has reserved writing about science, traveling and indulging in basketball. Currently, he gets together with Vanderbilt colleagues to shoot hoops roughly once a week.

While Kaas’ friends think his work deserves recognition similar in stature to the Nobel Prize, they say his lack of a self-promoting instinct hurts his chances. Kaas admits that neuroscience doesn’t lend itself easily to consideration for the Nobel award, yet he is thankful for the recognition he has received so far.

An accomplished professor at a prestigious institution and member of the National Academy of Sciences, Kaas is still considered a renegade. He is now busy resurrecting a particular area in brain research that was “swept under the rug” decades ago for reasons of convenience. Very few textbooks include this aspect of his research, but he soldiers on because, he says, if you don’t prove your own theory wrong, your students will. To Kaas, the best thing about science is the “ability to change your own thinking and change the thinking of others.”

Red Rover, Red Rover…
Harry “Hap” McSween
Earth and Planetary Scientist
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

No one knows when the first humans will touch down on Mars, but for the past month Hap McSween has been able to consider the red planet a second home. From NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., McSween has been planning strategy for the second rover, Opportunity, which landed on Mars at the end of January. Along with the other scientists under his command, McSween has been living on Mars time, where days are 40 minutes longer than on Earth.

Those 40-minute increments do add up, but McSween has labored tirelessly on NASA’s ongoing Mars mission, whose primary objective is to find whether there was enough water on Mars to support evolution.

The 58-year-old McSween has been involved with Mars long before NASA¹s current missions. He was one of the first scientists to discover pieces of Martian rocks in meteorites that fell to Earth. For the past 25 years, he studied those rocks and concluded they could indeed have been hurled from Mars’ surface at a speed of five kilometers an hour if they were hit by another meteor. First widely criticized, that theory gained credibility over time and it is now accepted that some of the meteorites found on Earth’s surface are souvenirs from Mars.

McSween attributes his passion for geology to his uncle, who used to send him samples of rocks and thus fired up a passion for science in the eight-year-old boy. “My uncle wasn’t a scientist. He was a retired businessman in New Jersey, but his hobby turned into a consuming career for me,” says McSween, saddened that his uncle never saw the fruits of his hobby expand to inter-planetary dimensions.

While McSween is focusing on orchestrating the research efforts of Opportunity, he was largely responsible for the selection of the Gusev crater, the landing spot for Spirit, the first rover that landed there as part of the current mission. It was Spirit that sent 3,000 startling images from Mars back to Earth in the first couple of days of its operation. McSween, his aide Jeff Moersh and four of his graduate students used the data from Mars orbiters to map out a landing site that NASA first considered a risky spot due to high winds, until McSween’s research convinced them otherwise.

A former jet pilot and Vietnam veteran, McSween doubts that there is extraterrestrial life on Mars, but he knows that Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our system, and therefore is the best place to look for signs of life that could have existed.

To McSween, space research is undeniably vital to the United States and the world. “There are plenty of financial bonuses that come from technological development, but the main benefit we derive from these space missions is the effect they have on our children.”

Studying the Earth and Mars is fascinating to McSween, who views them as grand geologic laboratory experiments that have run four-and-a-half-billion years. Being able to research another planet under a different set of conditions gives us an opportunity to avoid harming our own blue planet, and for McSween, is a child’s dream come true.

Framing Symmetries
Alexander Olshanskiy
Professor, Mathematics (Group Theory)
Vanderbilt University

To say Alexander Olshanskiy walks to work most of the time doesn’t tell you much about him. But look at it from his perspective—he walks five kilometers from his home to his office at Vanderbilt University, with an average velocity of seven kilometers per hour, adjusting for shortcuts and the occasional ride from his wife in inclement weather—and it’s easier to figure out his occupation.

Heir to the Einstein-influenced tradition of the distracted theoretical mathematician, Olshanskiy is considered the strongest group theorist alive today. He was lured to Vanderbilt in 1999 from Moscow State University in Russia, where he went to school and later became a professor on the mathematical faculty. Listening to Olshanskiy tell it, there was no real plan. Arriving in Moscow from the small Russian town of Saratov (where he grew up in a family of mathematicians), he attended some courses in theoretical math and just “went with the flow.” At 23, Olshanskiy was invited to deliver a plenary talk at the 1969 national conference before 500 renowned scientists. A year later he was awarded the prize of the Moscow Mathematical Society. As the years have progressed, his group theory work has gained more recognition, and the honors have multiplied, though one would be hard-pressed to find evidence of this in his workplace. His office is Spartan: a couple of chairs, a blackboard, a desk with a small pile of papers on the side and a blank sheet of paper in the middle. A family picture on the wall—his wife is also a mathematician, as are their two sons.

Such a simple workspace in which to work on such a complicated theory. Group theory deals with multiplication of symmetries out of which groups of symmetries are born. Olshanskiy and his colleagues are now assessing the complexities of calculations in those groups. For a better sense of its complexity, just look at the title of an article recently co-authored by Olshanskiy: “Non-amenable finitely presented torsion-by-cyclic groups.” That’s a mouthful, and don’t ask Olshanskiy to explain group theory in layman’s terms; he’ll say that he would need the courage of a populist to alter the truth of the matter, and he doesn’t have that courage.

The symbol of the modern age—the computer—is of little use to Olshanskiy other than for checking e-mail and using the word processor, since today’s computers cannot tackle the problems he is working on. And that leads to perhaps the strangest fact about this field in which the 58-year-old Olshanskiy works: his theories might find practical applications 10 years from now, or maybe 20. “It’s normal for mathematical theories to be applied in practice 50 years after they were created,” he says. “Sometimes they are never used.”

Yet Olshanskiy seems unfazed by the uncertainty of it all as he walks 3.11 miles a day to work on theories that his children’s children might not see the fruits of and ponders eventual retirement back in Russia at his summer home. Even now, he’s content to go with the flow.

Batting Cleanup
Frank Parker
Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Management of Technology
Vanderbilt University

Frank Parker came to Tennessee for one year to delay his search for a career path. Forty-eight years later, he’s still here. Now widely recognized as one of the world¹s top experts on nuclear waste, Parker was recruited to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to research ways in which the deadly byproduct of uranium and plutonium fissioning affects the environment. The year was 1956, barely a decade after the world¹s first nuclear bomb exploded in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Fresh out of a Ph.D. program at Harvard, the native Bostonian envisioned his involvement with nuclear waste as a short-term gig. Instead, he soon became the head of Radioactive Waste Disposal Research at Oak Ridge. In one project after another, he got involved with top-notch nuclear researchers who showed him the path to influence policies on nuclear waste disposal across the world.

At 77, Parker has crisscrossed the planet showing governments and private entities better ways of getting rid of nuclear leftovers, an especially troubling problem in Eastern European countries after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Left uncontrolled, piles of nuclear rubble can contaminate the environment and shorten lives of thousands of people. At times when local governments often are preoccupied with more basic needs, Parker seeks out funding from organizations worldwide and often serves as the main catalyst to cleanup efforts.

Throughout his career, Parker has authored books on novel methods of nuclear waste disposal, participated in classified negotiations and urged governments to change their often lenient ways of dealing with the dangers of nuclear waste. He often has had to be a diplomat to carry out his duty as a scientist. Among the few things he can recall on the record are negotiations in which he participated in Israel, when “everybody knew they were making [nuclear] weapons, but the discussion progressed as though there were no such efforts at all.”

The first ORNL scientist to start traveling extensively overseas, Parker is constantly on the go. In early February, he was the U.S. technical expert at the Moscow meeting of the Arctic Military Environmental Cooperation, outlining the hazards of towing decommissioned submarines. He has influenced decisions on nuclear waste disposal in China, Italy, Romania, Pakistan and Switzerland.

“I’ve always been willing to do things under uncertainty,” says Parker, who started out as a water resources engineer in Wyoming. At Vanderbilt University since 1967, he is also a senior fellow at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, where he heads the Radiation Safety of the Biosphere program. Last year, Parker was awarded the Wendell D. Weart Award for Lifetime Achievement in Nuclear Waste Management, the top honor in the field. Despite his jovial demeanor, Parker is not all that optimistic about the survival of humankind. “In general, things are getting worse,” he points out, though he considers the biggest dangers to stem not from nuclear waste, but from the pressures of population growth. Nonetheless, Parker soldiers on optimistically with his nuclear cleanup efforts around the world.

“I think I keep going because I¹ve been radiated so much over the years,” Parker says.

The Plastic Age
Richard Turner
Research Fellow
Polymer Technology Division, Eastman Chemical

In the corporate laboratories of today, simply being a prodigious scientist doesn¹t suffice. To stay relevant in the eyes of many grant-giving, funds-distributing authorities, scientists often require a crash course in sales. Richard Turner, who holds 90 patents in polymer chemistry and has worked for such corporate giants as Xerox, Exxon Mobil and Kodak, points out that even in creating something as useful as a wheel one has to ask the question: Is the market ready for it?

Take 3M, a worldwide industrial giant, which recently had to restructure its laboratory to decrease the amount of scientific misses. “³They developed products the marketplace didn’t want,” Turner says.

Fortunately for Turner, the market seems ready for his inventions. Eastman Chemical now relies on Turner¹s research as the company moves to position itself firmly in the plastics markets of tomorrow. Creating new types of plastics that change properties when exposed to light, or plastic beer containers that better preserve the taste of the beverage, Turner says Eastman would be in the position to compete with General Motors, which is also committing substantial resources to plastics research.

With such a short deadline, Turner has his work cut out for him. But Eastman relies heavily on Turner¹s 30-year track record of successful inventions, such as hyperbranch and dendritic polymers, which he pioneered at Kodak. Those polymers earned him wide recognition for their flexibility and variety of industrial applications.

With its share price lagging the broad market in recent years, Eastman is looking to generate new divisions within the company that will improve its future standing. With $159 million in annual research spending, the company is lucky to have researchers like Turner who recognize entrepreneurs within themselves.

“I’m interested in developing new polymers and plastics that enable people to do things they can¹t do today,” Turner says.

In the marriage between business and technology, Turner has learned to be flexible in his experimentation. When projects fail, he moves on to another alternative, keeping his potential customers in mind.

The Nashville native and graduate of Tennessee Tech in Cookeville was awarded fellowship by the American Chemical Society for his contribution to the science and engineering of polymeric materials in 2002. When asked what his studies have revealed to him about the world, Turner responds: “You can’t fool Mother Nature."

Dead Men Talking
Arpad Vass
Forensic anthropologist
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

You won¹t convince Arpad Vass that a dead man tells no tales. Vass, a forensic scientist at Oak Ridge, runs the world’s only body farm—a place where corpses are left to rot on purpose for the sake of scientific research. For two decades, Vass has used his facility to extract ever more precise tales from the dead. Officially dubbed the Anthropology Research Facility, the 30-year-old plot of land on three wooded acres behind the medical center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville was immortalized in Patricia Cornwell’s The Body Farm.

After arriving at the university in 1988, Vass, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, came under the wing of Body Farm creator William Bass (now retired). Since then, he has focused on developing a low-cost, easy-to-use method of determining time since death—a great boon for law enforcement agencies attempting to determine guilt and gain convictions. During his tenure at the farm, Vass says the margin of error in determining time since death has been reduced from weeks and months to plus or minus 12 hours.

In a world where a cadaver can be reduced to bare bones in as little as 30 days, weather permitting, Vass turns to outside objects, such as carpeting, bedding, or anything the body could be wrapped in. Analyzing the chemical makeup of the crime scene, he builds computer models of the body, figuring multiple variables, which ultimately lead to determining the coveted time since death.

Vass has seen it all. “We’ve had people dismembered, scattered around, sprayed with insecticide.” Vass and his colleagues use the UT Body Farm as an open-air laboratory where they can test the models they develop based on time-dependent chemical and biological markers to predict and analyze the decay process. Long since accustomed to the sight of rotting flesh, Vass admits one can never get used to the accompanying smell. “You just have to go with it.” The models Vass has created are currently being used in the United States, Canada, England and Australia. He has testified in some of the nation¹s gravest criminal cases, including the “Zoo Man” Huskey case in Knoxville and a Florida case where the perpetrators dragged the body from site to site in hopes of escaping punishment. His testimony there was based on the analysis of soil samples and led to a rare first-degree murder conviction reached without ever discovering the body.

But not all of Vass’ methods are purely scientific. Joking around with one of his visiting colleagues at the Body Farm, Vass once decided to use an equivalent of a divining rod to locate a buried corpse. Holding two pieces of a wire hanger in his hands, Vass was startled as he indeed found that body. “We laughed about it and tried again,” Vass says. The laughter died down after the divining method worked time and again, having never failed thus far. Vass is now devising a theory to support the experiment. “If you can use it on a nanoscale level in law enforcement, it would be a great tool,” he says. Also in Vass’ desk drawer is a technology of attaching electronic chips to flies, which are known to locate rotting flesh three miles away.

Be it by soil samples, divining rods or flies that spy, the dead are talking to Arpad Vass.

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