Lauren Pharr illuminates the science behind an often-misunderstood animal

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Every animal has its enthusiast. For the turkey vulture, it’s Dr. Lauren Pharr. Originally from Tennessee, Lauren uses her Ph.D. from LSU’s Department of Geography and Anthropology to research and promote the role of vultures in forensic science. Through cross-disciplinary research in forensic anthropology and geographic information systems, Lauren has shown that deeper study of vulture scavenging can lead to more accurate work in identifying human remains. Lauren’s work has led her across the country to help law enforcement professionals and researchers, including the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Whether it’s helping local law enforcement solve missing persons cases or consulting in data collection and research at national labs, Lauren proves that this often-misunderstood species offers more than a cliché about vultures circling.

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Lauren, one of the speakers at TEDxLSU 2017, about her research and other interests.

Which animal is your favorite and why?

Oh, the turkey vulture is my favorite because it is such a good scavenger. I love skeletons, and after a turkey vulture eats, it always leaves one. They soar in the sky, and I just think it’s fascinating to watch, and the physics behind that flight.

What’s something about vultures that is often misunderstood?

People fail to realize that vultures rely on dead stuff for their food, so they scavenge. The vulture’s purpose is to clean up the earth, and they speed up decomposition.

How did you discover your passion?

I’ve always liked science and when I was five, I got a microscope for Christmas. That was one of my favorite toys as a child. In high school, I dissected a pig, and I thought it was fascinating. I took the pig home and I put it in my parent’s freezer, and my mom was horrified. When I went to LSU, I was fascinated by decomposition. It’s really gross, but there’s a lot of science behind it. You can understand what’s going on inside the body and how the temperature influences it. The environment is what’s influencing the changes you see. It’s a puzzle I enjoy figuring out.

Tell me more about your fieldwork in Texas.

I’ve always loved animals, but I didn’t become such a vulture enthusiast until I moved to Texas, where I was trying to trap and GPS tag these scavenging birds so I could study their behavior. I used the GPS data from transmitters the birds wore to figure out where they were scavenging. It took me 10 months to trap the birds. I didn’t realize how smart they were. I had a camera set up, and I was monitoring the trap. I would put bait out, and the camera would record what happened. When I returned, there would be a skeleton and very little evidence that any bird had been there.

How many did you catch?

I ended up catching 52 vultures, and they all received wing tags. Six received transmitters.

If you weren’t a scientist, what career would you pursue?

Graphic design. I haven’t had a whole lot of time to do it, but I love creating images and I love decorating, especially for Christmas and Halloween. Interior design would be my second choice.

Where would you go if you could visit anywhere in the world, and why?

I would go to the Saint Bernard Pass in the Swiss Alps because my dog Elmo is half Saint Bernard, and I would like to see where the Saint Bernard dog is from and learn more about that breed; and I like to snow ski.

If you could switch jobs with another TEDxLSU 2017 speaker, who would it be and why?

Ahsennur Soysal! I think foxes are fascinating animals and I think it’s so cool how she’s using modern technology to help the animals and learn more about them.

Ten years ago, would you have expected to be where you are now?

I thought I would be working at a crime lab, wearing a white lab coat, looking at samples under a microscope. But it was more chemistry based, and I enjoyed fieldwork more. I also pictured myself walking down 5th Avenue in New York City wearing a crisp black business suit. I achieved my goal of working in New York City, but I wore jeans and cowboy boots and walked down 1st Avenue to the medical examiner’s office.

If you could have a meal with anyone, who would you choose and why?

I would go to lunch with Britney Spears. Last winter I was in Vegas giving a forensic talk on vultures, and following my talk I dragged my fiancé to go see Britney live! She was fabulous! I’m a science dork that loves birds, bones and bugs, but I also love Britney, glitter and sequins, high heels, makeup and hair products.

You previously mentioned you liked interior decor and bargain hunting — what’s your latest project?

Wedding planning! I love doing crafty things and I wanted my wedding to be DIY, but it takes so much time. And I would love to have vultures there, but that idea did not go over well with the wedding planners.

To learn more about Lauren or about TEDxLSU 2017, follow TEDxLSU on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Reserve your seat now to experience Lauren’s talk, as well as the talks of all of the other TEDxLSU 2017 speakers.