The truth behind SFU’s “morgue”

We’ve been wrong all these years (and the actual lab is cooler)

Image courtesy of The National

By: Michelle Gomez, Staff Writer 

If you are an SFU student, you have probably heard the rumors regarding a secret morgue hidden within the depths of the mountain. What students have been referring to as the “SFU Morgue” for years is actually called the Autopsy Suite.

Located in Saywell Hall, the Autopsy Suite is part of SFU’s Centre for Forensic Research. The centre is used by a small interdisciplinary group of faculty members from the criminology, archaeology, and biology departments. SFU’s online profile of the centre describes it as “designed to create new knowledge in the forensic sciences for the purpose of solving crimes, identifying human remains, determining elapsed time since death, and circumstances of death on local and global scales.”

Dr Hugo Cardoso, an archaeology professor at SFU, is one of the co-directors of the centre and, among other things, is the principal investigator (PI) of the Autopsy Suite— which is what you and I would call “the morgue.” He elaborated on what the suite is in an interview with The Peak.

“Forensics is almost exclusively related to medical legal death examination,” Cardoso explained. “Forensics is any examination that relies on evidence that is analyzed by scientific means in any discipline and that is applied to a dispute in a court of law. That’s forensics. So an engineer can be a forensic engineer if he has to make an assessment of the integrity of a structure.”

The research in the Centre for Forensic Research includes Dr Gill Anderson’s forensic entomology (the ways that insects can indicate cause and time of death), Dr Lynne Bell’s work on bone biochemistry and degradation, Dr Dongya Yang’s work on ancient DNA, and much more.

Cardoso tells us that he researches forensic anthropology, analyzing remains to help identify them and determine a cause of death, and he and his grad students are the Autopsy Suite’s main users. In lieu of experimenting on human remains, they use animal models for their research, and the Autopsy Suite lets them prepare samples for experimentation.

“I do a lot of things,” Cardoso admits. But right now, he is interested in two main kinds of experiences.

“I’m interested in how immature juvenile bone degrades over time and how juvenile bone responds to different kinds of chemical forces,” Cardoso says. “I also work with a faculty member in mechatronics to carry out chemical tests on experimental fracturing of pig bones.”

In addition to research, Cardoso explained that the centre carries out forensic services, working closely with the RCMP, the BC Coroners Service, and even the Yukon Coroner’s Service.

“When human remains are found, typically decomposed or scattered in a way that the body cannot be normally identified through visual means, we assist the BC Coroners Service,” Cardoso said. “Those remains are brought to SFU, to the Autopsy Suite, and that is where we prepare the remains and carry out the first examination before we take them to another lab to complete the analysis.”

The first analysis mainly ascertains the subject’s identity and cause of death. This includes identifying their subject’s age and sex, as well as any injuries that could indicate how the person died.

As another example of what goes on in the Autopsy Suite, Cardoso explained that SFU researchers helped with the high-profile case in which a sled dog company killed 100 of their dogs following a decrease in demand after the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“Over time, there’s been a networking effort creating a fairly cohesive group of people that are connected to SFU or that eventually become connected to SFU to work on all of these issues,” Cardoso notes.

Cardoso is clear about the variety of work done at the The Centre for Forensic Research, some of which falls outside of research. The centre also organizes a symposium every year that brings together forensic experts, researchers, academics, and students from all across the Lower Mainland. This year’s will be on December 4, and the event will be open to the public, though you must register in advance.

“You’re welcome to come and be fed,” Cardoso jokes.

As far as what doesn’t go on in the autopsy suite — it’s not a morgue. A morgue is defined as “a place where the bodies of dead persons are kept temporarily pending identification or release for burial or autopsy.” Although there may or may not be human remains in the Centre for Forensic Research at any given time, they would be there to assist the BC Coroners Service.

TL;DR: there is no morgue at SFU.