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CSI: BU Edition

BU offers nation’s only master’s in forensic anthropology

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Sarah Peacock (MED’11) analyzes a skull in a MED lab. Professor Debra Prince Zinni (below) guides David Agoada (MED’11) in identifying skeletal remains. Photos by Vernon Doucette

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 in 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.’”

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. (What Prince Zinni has seen of these shows hasn’t impressed her for realism. Some snazzy lab gizmos are pure fiction, she says, adding, “I don’t chase down perps.” But at six feet tall, she would cut a striking figure at precinct headquarters.) The real-life 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, as mentioned in a recent Boston Globe op-ed piece. 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 ranch-house classroom, fields, woods, and cranberry bogs.


Watch this video on YouTube

In the video above, Debra Prince Zinni excavates remains with her forensic anthropology students at a mock crime scene in Holliston, Mass.

Tara Moore, a MED assistant professor, who initiated and directs the Forensic Anthropology Program, agrees that “there was a need for these programs not only for students, but also for professionals.”

The age spread between Trull-Donahue, 24, and Agoada (MED’11), 60, is evidence of the program’s broad appeal. Agoada studied for an anthropology doctorate in the 1970s with a University of Washington professor who had worked with the remains of victims of serial killer Ted Bundy. He abandoned the doctorate for podiatry, but his interest in forensic anthropology never left him. With his children now graduated from college, Agoada has returned to school and his old passion.

Prince Zinni understands career changes. Her early aspiration to teach kindergarten ebbed when she took a freshman-year intro course in anthropology at James Madison University, thinking it would be an easy A. “I loved the course. We actually got to go out and do a survey of a Civil War battlefield, which I just thought was amazing.”

Acknowledging cases like the one Trull-Donahue and Agoada worked on, the program’s website warns that forensic anthropologists often work with not just bones, but decomposing tissue, under conditions involving “unpleasant smells and sights, including decomposing flesh, insect activity, and potentially disturbing case details.” The site also stresses the field’s important duties. Prince Zinni came to BU from the federal Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii, which boasts the world’s largest forensic anthropology lab: 32 staffers, with plans to double that, she says.

That might help calm nervous parents who, like hers, wonder what their children are going to do with their CSI-inspired degrees. The first 11 BU students graduate next May.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu. Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on CSI: BU Edition

  • Anonymous on 10.18.2010 at 11:46 pm

    Not CSI

    Bones is the show about Forensic Anthropology. Not CSI. Get your facts straight.

  • Michelle on 11.19.2010 at 4:27 pm

    Giving Bones credit

    Please, can you guys stop getting good shows like Bones mixed in with mediocre shows like CSI? Maybe they have higher hype but Bones is the show about forensic anthropology, and maybe if you want to correct the inaccuracy of tv shows, you might want to be accurate yourselves.

    Oh, and I believe it was in 2008 or 09 that Bones was written about in the magazine Science, and it was said to be the most scientifically accurate show on television. So yeah, where’s CSI?

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