CSI: BU Edition
BU offers nation’s only master’s in forensic anthropology| From Commonwealth | By Rich Barlow. Video by Robin Berghaus
Debra Prince Zinni excavates remains with her forensic anthropology students at a mock crime scene in Holliston, Mass.
The forensics lab is Hollywood-perfect: cramped, fluorescent-lit, skeletal remains splayed on five tables under a ceiling that’s cracked and discolored in spots. At one table, students Danielle Trull-Donahue and David Agoada pore over a heartbreaking cache—the tiny bones of a child—trying to decipher all they can about the human being that these remains once were.
Welcome to the School of Medicine’s Forensic Anthropology Program, which offers the country’s only master’s degree in this discipline. Examining the jawbone before them, the students see that the molars haven’t come through yet, indicating the child was perhaps six years old. The lab partners haven’t yet determined gender, a trickier question given the child’s tender age. Determining cause of death is not part of the assignment, but telltale patterns—some broken ribs here, other fractured bones there—“suggest there was abuse,” says Trull-Donahue (MED’11). Such grim details are an occupational hazard. “Everybody kind of cringes,” she says. But “the justice of finding out who it is” and the knowledge that this profession helps family members account for loved ones were enough to convince Trull-Donahue that this was the right career for her.
Created just last year, this two-year program prepares students for academic and law enforcement jobs scouring fire, crash, and crime scenes for remains, then identifying them. Overseeing today’s lab is Debra Prince Zinni, a MED assistant professor, who grew up thinking she’d be a kindergarten teacher, but instead now instructs adult students how to dig up and identify human remains. She recalls her parents’ reaction to her change of career plans: “You’re never going to get a job.’”
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Sarah Peacock (MED’11) analyzes a skull in a MED lab. Photo by Vernon Doucette
But art and life conspired to turn forensic anthropology into a growth industry. The art part can be seen in the ratings for TV hits like the CSI franchise and Bones, which glamorize forensic sleuthing. The reallife event sparking interest in this field? Terrorism.
Before 9/11, New York City’s medical examiner had one forensic anthropologist on staff, says Prince Zinni; today, there are five. “Houston didn’t have any forensic anthropologists before 9/11. Now they have four.” (Prince Zinni herself is the part-time forensic anthropologist for the Massachusetts chief medical examiner.) Before this growth spurt, medical examiners typically farmed out such work to anthropologists at local universities, who often confined their work to the lab, indentifying dead people from skeletal remains, says Prince Zinni. “Now, it’s changed a lot. Anthropologists are asked to come out to the scene, help with the recovery of remains, so that it’s done systematically and with the most scientific methodology.”
That’s necessary to combat the “junk science” seeping out of forensic labs, she says, a problem spotlighted by the National Academy of Sciences. Course work for the BU program includes field trips to excavate bones planted at BU’s 32-acre outdoor training facility in Holliston, Mass., replete with a ranchhouse classroom, fields, woods, and cranberry bogs.