The Malaysian scientist who uses bugs to solve deaths & crimes

Dr Heo has always been fascinated with insects, he says. Photo: The Star/Kamarul Ariffin

For most people, insects and death are two things that they want to avoid at all costs. For senior lecturer Dr Heo Chong Chin, however, they are two very important components of his job.

The Kuantan-born academic is qualified in forensic entomology: a field of science which uses the biology of insects and other invertebrates to help in legal or criminal investigations.

“Actually, most people are very interested in insects. It’s a natural thing. Most people like butterflies, bumblebees and dragonflies; some even find them cute. It’s only when we come to the pest insects, like flies and mosquitoes, that people find them disgusting,” said Heo, 35, who specialises in the study of flies.

Heo obtained a Bachelor in Biomedical Sciences (Hons) and a Master in Medical Science (Parasitology) from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He then earned his PhD from the Department of Entomology, Texas A&M University in the United States, in 2016.

Heo worked as a research officer at the Institute for Medical Research, Kuala Lumpur, before moving to the Medical faculty of Universiti Teknologi Mara in Sungai Buloh, Selangor, where he now lectures.

Forensic entomologists like Dr Heo have a vital role to play in society. Photo: STAR/Kamarul Ariffin

Most of Heo’s daily routine involves lecturing and conducting research. However, he occasionally helps out at the Sungai Buloh Hospital, conducting forensic investigations. Insects, it seems, are a good way to discover details about a death, especially time and circumstances.

For example, in one case, Heo was confronted with a very unusual discovery. A dead body had been found, infested by maggots with tails. Heo realised these were rat-tailed maggots, which were aquatic; therefore, the death must have had something to do with water.

Another case involved a body covered with jumping maggots.

“This was very rare, especially in Malaysia! When you have jumping maggots, it means the person has been dead for quite a long time. Normally you won’t see them because people usually clear the body away before it gets to that stage,” Heo said.

Forensic entomology can be a grisly job, which requires a strong mind and spirit. Heo, however, is passionate about what he does, and is glad that he can use his knowledge to help people.

Insects, he said, have always fascinated him. “When I tell people what I do, they always look at me and go, why do you want to study this? But I’m not surprised to get this kind of reaction,” Heo laughed.

“You feel satisfied when you help out families who need to know the details of their loved one’s death. If you can help them, they are very grateful because it means they can bury their loved ones and move on in peace.”

Working in a field so associated with death also helped him get a fresh perspective on life and mortality.

“We are all made of nutrients. When we die, we go back to the soil, and feed the plants, who go on to feed animals. Everything is a cycle; we all have to go through this process. It makes me think that life is short, time is limited, and everything is only temporary. Forgive and forget, and life goes on,” Heo said.

Forensic entomologists, Heo said, play an important role in society. Those in the urban field, for example, are usually called to investigate buildings plagued by termites. Those in the stored-pack field, on the other hand, are often involved in cases where consumers find food contaminated by insects.

Some of his colleagues, Heo said, work tirelessly behind the scenes on mosquitoes, trying to discover ways to reduce dengue fever.

To his knowledge, there are currently fewer than 10 actively practising forensic entomologists in Malaysia. And most of the public are unaware of the work they do. As the population grows, Heo said, more people with their expertise would probably be needed.

“That’s why, I’d like to encourage the new generation of scientists to go out and share the work that we do,” said the forensic entomologist.

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