The wriggling world of 'Maggot Girl'

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MICHELLE Harvey took a deep breath and walked calmly over to the prone figure on the mortuary table.

She was dealing with the badly-decomposed body of a murdered child but had to put the horrors of the case out of her mind.

There was only one thing she was interested in – the maggots feeding on the corpse.

Dr Harvey is an entomologist – an expert in the scientific study of insects. And she knew that by finding out exactly what type of maggot she was dealing with, she could help shed light on how the child's life came to an end.

Now she has taken up a post at the University of Portsmouth to carry on her work, which could help police get early breakthroughs in murder investigations such as that first awful case.

The 28-year-old, who is originally from Australia, said that while working there she was never told the details of the victims she worked with.

'That was quite a sensitive case because it was the emotive issue of a child,' she said.

'It was my first case and I thought this is what tells me if I can handle it.

'I examined the child and removed the insect evidence. I never heard what happened. It's never about that.

'It was a very daunting thing, wondering if I could handle it or not. Even though I can handle the maggots I wasn't sure I could handle dead bodies.'

Dr Harvey, whom the Australian press nicknamed 'Maggot Girl', has been appointed senior lecturer in the university's School of Biological Sciences.

She is studying our own varieties of flies and maggots to try to discover how the DNA of each species varies.

In cases where people have been killed and their bodies moved elsewhere, knowing which type of fly laid maggots on the corpse could help pinpoint exactly where the murder took place.

Dr Harvey, who lives in Portsmouth with her German-born husband, became intrigued by insects at an early age, partly because of her family background. Her mother was interested and Dr Harvey described her younger self as the 'weird kid' who would watch bugs and ants for hours. She admits to talking to flies, even now.

'I've always had an appreciation that it's something so small but amazing, that you can see its impact on the environment. Insects play such important roles. They are pollinators, they are hunters.'

Dr Harvey, who gained her PhD from the University of Western Australia, has been involved in murder cases as well as more mundane food industry cases, where her expertise has been used to try to pinpoint the time when maggots have entered a particular food.

She also spent a year at the Anthropology Research Facility in Knoxville, Tennessee – an institution known more commonly as 'The Body Farm', which uses the bodies of people who have donated their corpses.

Forensic scientists can work out more about decomposition rates.

Over here, she will trap local species and examine them to see if she can notice patterns that identify the differences between species. But it will be a long process.

'We are starting to gather the information. I want to make sure I've got the understanding before I apply it to criminal cases,' she said.