by Romney Thomas
The concept of forensic science and forensic anthropology has been fascinating since shows like “CSI,” “NCIS” and “Bones” hit the airwaves more than a decade ago. Part of the appeal of these programs is found in the adrenaline-pinching crunch of solving a case and catching a criminal using advanced scientific techniques.
It’s easy to get lost in the popular perception of what these sciences are and what they do.
Examining the processes of what goes on at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility brings a new, more grounded sense of the realities of forensic science. The field is clinical, but it’s also incredibly intimate.
“You can clearly see that after death, there is still order,” said Joan Bytheway, director of STAFS and specialist in forensic anthropology. “It doesn’t go chaotic after death. There is still order in the process. That’s pretty amazing, really.”
STAFS opened in 2008 as one of only four willed-body donor facilities in the nation and the world at the time. That number has since expanded to six, and a seventh is being built in Australia. The cutting edge research in numerous disciplines conducted at STAFS puts the facility on the map in several fields, but also in forensics at large.
The process can seem overwhelming, but once each piece of the puzzle is sorted, the picture becomes clear. The disciplines that intertwine to find order after death include anthropology, chemistry, microbiology, entomology, and even geology.
“Even from the initial conception of STAFS, I wanted it to be interdisciplinary,” said Bytheway. “We didn’t have an anthropology department, so I needed forensic science to include some other people. We get donations that are so valuable, families give us their loved ones, and we want to use these bodies to get as much information as possible from them. You can see when we’re done, all we have left is the skeleton which we also keep for our records.”
The interdisciplinary flexibility available at STAFS contributes heavily to its success. Being able to quickly adapt to unanticipated situations that arise is a must when so much research is left vulnerable to the elements.
“Some of the lessons learned after the fact are the most interesting,” said Bytheway. “There was one point where we were looking to see if gunshot residue could survive decomposition. The body was in the ground, and we happened to get rain. It turned out to be a great opportunity for entomology to study insects that come into an aquatic environment. Being able to study things that crop up like that is very valuable.”
The learning opportunities at STAFS are abundant for seasoned researchers as well as students. Bytheway estimates that about 75 percent of the students working at STAFS are undergraduates. The research that students participate in helps their futures, and due to the sheer volume of the projects at STAFS their help is also crucial to keep the facility running at its current pace.
Katie Tanner, a senior criminal justice major minoring in forensic anthropology, is one of such students able to take advantage of the opportunities offered at STAFS.
“The resources we have available to help us learn here at STAFS are amazing,” said Tanner. “The people who have donated their bodies to science have made it possible to have a very hands-on learning experience, which is an extremely appreciated gift.”
Tanner, along with fellow student Tonya Parnell, works closely with Bytheway on a cadaver decomposition island (CDI) study.
“The CDI is formed when the fluids from a decomposing body leach out into the soil and kill the surrounding vegetation leaving a dark area basically outlining the body,” said Tanner. “We’ll look for regrowth of vegetation in these areas so that one day law enforcement might use this information to create a timeline of how long remains have been in a certain area depending on regrowth or lack thereof.”
Parnell, a senior biology major who is also minoring in forensic anthropology, has a slightly different perspective of the research opportunities at STAFS than her criminal justice counterparts.
“I care about forensics in a bit of a different way,” said Parnell. “I have no interest in actively being the one to catch a killer, if there is one. What I want to do is give the story back to the person who can’t tell it anymore. Everyone is someone’s child and I think people can forget that when all they see is a skeleton. No one deserves to spend eternity with their corporeal remains in a box, unidentified.”
Kaitlin Dilliard, who holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and is currently a senior Criminal Justice major minoring in Forensic Anthropology, has found the opportunity to expand on her working knowledge of forensic techniques at STAFS.
“I have done several things here that I didn’t expect,” said Dilliard. “I have done research that combines my work with facial reconstruction and a 3-D scanner to try and see if there is a measurable asymmetry between the left and right sides of the face and to see if there is a measurable pattern between ethnicities and sexes. I hope this research will allow me to help law enforcement and other students to learn and understand individuals who are no longer known.”
Researching and developing techniques to recover individuals and give them their identities back does seem to be the main goal of everyone at STAFS.
“When I was in Iraq and I was working on the mass graves there, being able to give those young men, women and children a voice after being in the ground for twenty years was my greatest accomplishment,” said Bytheway. “That led to this place. I want to help victims, to find them and tell their story.”