Kimberlee Sue Moran is no ordinary geek. As Geekadelphia’s Scientist of the Year, her crowning achievement was blowing up a bus filled with dead animals to help first responders learn how to identify bombing victims.
“They got an understanding of debris patterns and developed a protocol where they could reconstruct what happened and recover both biological and non-biological evidence,’’ explains Moran, a Rutgers-Camden forensic archaeology professor and grant facilitator.
Her forensic exercise was a success. But what was so geeky about it?
Maybe the fact that Moran and her assistants created characters for each animal, complete with names, occupations and phony IDs. Then they dressed them in human clothes. The animals, from the Rutgers Farm in New Brunswick, had died of natural causes or been put down due to illness.
The Geekadelphia website explains why Moran was a winner. “(She) has done a lot to bring the world of forensic science to the Philadelphia region...When she isn’t busy doing science, she helps encourage others to love it.’’
Geekadelphia, a blog run by self-proclaimed geeks from the city’s tech, science and arts scene, holds an annual award ceremony to honor the city’s quirky achievers.
Staff are redefining what it means to be a geek. And according to their site, they take exception to the kind of stereotypes perpetuated in the Wikipedia definition of the word: “A peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual...one with low social skills.’’
Moran is proud to label herself a geek and has her own ideas about the meaning of the word. “To me, a geek is someone who is passionate about something that’s a little off the beaten track,’’ says Moran, who grew up in Laurel Springs, N.J. “I’ve always been very passionate about the things I study. My enthusiasm, I think, makes me an effective teacher because one can convey what’s exciting about a subject to people who might need a little convincing.’’
Geeks aren’t synonymous with nerds, she claims, but when asked to describe the difference, Moran sounds nervous. “I don’t want to get myself into trouble here. Some people feel very strongly about this. On a very superficial level, geeks are probably more socially well-adjusted than nerds,’’ she says gingerly.
Moran established the first series of forensic science classes at Rutgers-Camden. But she had never heard of forensic archaeology until she went to graduate school. With a background in classical and near Eastern archaeology, she unwittingly enrolled in a graduate program at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, only to discover that it was entirely centered on modern human remains and criminal investigations.
“It was a complete mistake,’’ she says. “I knew nothing about the subject. I never even watched CSI. But when I heard ‘forensic,’ I was excited. I thought, ‘Dead stuff! Great!’ I thought I’d be learning about mummies, but it wasn’t ancient dead things at all, it was very much the recently deceased.”
Today, one of her special interests is researching ancient fingerprints, which she believes can reveal valuable information about people who lived thousands of years ago. “A fingerprint says 'I touched this.' It’s a mark of individuality. The ideal situation is finding two different objects that have the same fingerprints,’’ she says. “If you find a clay pot the next village over with the same fingerprint, you know there was some connection between those two places.’’
Like any bona fide geek, Moran can rattle off arcane facts about the subject. “Koala bears have fingerprints that look very similar to those of humans,’’ she volunteers.
Moran’s joy in sharing knowledge like this is one reason her friend Natasha Tursi, associate director of the Center for Urban Research & Education at Rutgers-Camden, nominated her as Geekadelphia Scientist of the Year. “Sometimes science geeks are very insular in research and delivery. She’s certainly not,’’ says Tursi. “Who else can talk about dead pigs in such a cheery and upbeat way?”
Moran is thrilled to have nabbed the Geekadelphia award, a trophy shaped like a robot, and loved the surprisingly glamorous ceremony, where guests dressed in evening wear walked the red carpet. Still, she acted like a geek.
“I talked to an ichthyologist about hagfish,’’ she recounts. “They have a big suction mouth and inject an enzyme into whatever animal they attach themselves to. They digest it from the inside out and suck up all the goo. It was a great conversation. And I guess this is the sort of thing the geek awards celebrate.’’