Fighting Crime With Bugs

April 23, 2004

M. Lee Goff loves bugs. He's also partial to dead bodies. But what really excites him is a combination of the two.

Goff, a forensic entomologist, studies how insects infest a body after death. Though the discipline has ancient roots, it has only gained momentum in the last decade.

Now, as chairman of the forensic science department at Chaminade University in Honolulu, Hawaii, Goff is in high demand, lecturing worldwide; he is one of only nine forensic entomologists certified by the American Board of Forensic Entomology. He also serves as a consultant for the CBS crime dramas CSI and CSI: Miami, and he is curator of a traveling museum exhibition called CSI: Crime Scene Insects.

In a recent interview with National Geographic News, Goff discussed his job and television crime dramas.

How did you end up in forensic entomology?

My entire career is an accident. I originally went to Hawaii in 1962 to surf. I never left. Instead I completed a degree in marine zoology and worked for the entomology department of a local museum where I became hooked on mosquitoes and other insects.

I became familiar with autopsies during a stint in the pathology unit at Fort Ord Army Hospital in Monterey, California, during the Vietnam war. It was here that estimating time of death using insects began to interest me.

I got a Ph.D. studying chiggers in Papua New Guinea. In 1982 I attended an entomology meeting where I met a guy whose work in forensic entomology really fascinated me. I went straight to the medical examiner in Hawaii and told him I wanted to look at maggots in dead bodies. He thought I was nuts.

What was your first forensics project?

I studied the life cycles of insects, how these cycles varied with climate, and began presenting a few of my studies on how to predict the time of death depending on the type of insect and the stage of development.

In 1989, a friend in the FBI brought me in to train agents in the Evidence Response Team how to identify and collect insects from a corpse.

Why did you begin testing bugs for drugs?

Continued on Next Page >>


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