Anne Murtha stood by her poster of fetal pigs on Academy Night at Farragut High School Tuesday, April 18. She was one of about 100 students ready to share the results of research — research that lasted from several weeks to more than a year. Students were required to partner with experts such as university professors, log their research time, attend guest lectures, write papers and present academic posters.
“Academy Night is an event for the kids to display their research from throughout the year,” said Neely Tonos, FHS science teacher and one of the event organizers.
When it comes to research, it’s safe to say that Murtha, who soon will be going to West Virginia University to pursue a degree in forensics, was in a category by herself: she was the only student who buried fetal pig bodies in her backyard.
When Tonos heard that Murtha wanted to do forensic research, she offered to order fetal pigs from an organization that would donate them. Murtha would bury them to watch the decomposition.
She took the 8- to 11-inch pig bodies to an area behind her backyard fence.
“One pig was left on top of the ground,” she said, “the others were buried in sand and topsoil from the store, in a hole in the ground and the last one was left in a bucket that was filled with dirt from the ground.”
Initially, things went well.
“I went out and uncovered the pigs every day to see how well they were decomposing,” said the daughter of Paul and Michelle Murtha.
“They didn’t last very long, surprisingly,” she added. “Most of them lasted about a week before they got taken [by an animal]. Around the eighth or ninth day, the pig in the bucket was very bloated and that is one of the very first signs that something’s starting to decompose.” After 14 days, though, even the pig in the bucket was gone.
With no more bodies, Murtha had to turn to the computer.
“What I found is that if none of the pigs had gotten stolen, the one on top of the ground would have decomposed the fastest,” she said. “I learned a lot about the process of decomposition. One thing that I learned just from the pigs is that they took a lot longer to decompose than I thought they would take.”
Even though checking on the bodies was a little unnerving at times, Murtha said she expects to see decomposition a lot. She got her start on the project at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
“I did a two-week internship with a group of about 16 [other students] from Knox County Schools for two hours each day at UT and they taught us how to identify sex, age and height by using bones from their collection,” she said.
While Murtha stood with students who did science research, humanities research students, taught by Valarie Cagle and Angela Breeding, stood in a line with their papers in front of them.
“Each student made a website and wrote a paper,” said Erin Van Hoozier, who wrote about the Hitler youth movement. “And we presented the findings to class. The most surprising thing was that he ended up manipulating the whole country, but it started with child as young as 5. They played games to get them to want to join Hitler Youth. It started out innocently, then went to eugenics — the pure Arian race — and he taught that in school. About three years after [the organization] was established, it became mandatory to belong.” Van Hoozier is the daughter of Carl and Gail Van Hoozier and plans to go The University of Tennessee.