May, 2007 Vol. 32 No. 2
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Published May 2007

Bone Detectives

Student interest fuels joint program in forensic anthropology

by Tracy Matsushima
a class excavates a skeleton in a test exercise

A forensics class excavates a skeleton in a test exercise


three girls stand over a larfe sifter examining something small

Sifting for evidence, from left, Lauren Smyser, Jennifer Hackforth and Brooke Ward are enthusiastic students of forensic anthropology




Students like Jenn Abreu, left, praise the hands-on lessons with experts like instructor William Belcher, of the military’s Central Identification Laboratory

Turn on the TV and you’re bound to catch one, complete with dead bodies, blood drops, skulls, bullet holes. Popular shows from CSI to Crossing Jordan incorporate or focus on forensics. A hot new University of Hawaiʻi program also draws on the subject, but students say it was the love of bones, not the current TV craze, that got them hooked.

The recently approved certificate program at UH West Oʻahu and Leeward Community College prepares students to enter a growing field—forensic anthropology. Forensic anthropologists apply standard scientific techniques developed in physical anthropology to identify human remains and assist in the detection of crime. These bone detectives determine age, sex, ancestry, stature, trauma and unique features from skeletal, badly decomposed or otherwise unidentifiable human remains. They are often in charge of the recovery of human remains and serve as expert court witnesses.

West Oʻahu’s first forensic anthropology course was offered in 1999. It was taught by Tom Holland, director of the U.S. military’s Central Identification Laboratory, located at Hickam Air Force Base as part of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. Students flocked to the new field, says Suzanne Falgout, West Oʻahu professor of anthropology. One of the first was Lauren Ware.

"As strange as it may sound, I have been interested in forensic anthropology my whole life," the 2002 West O’ahu graduate says. "As a child I routinely broke my toys, buried them in my backyard, and then 'excavated' them." Still, luck had a hand in pointing her toward anthropology as a profession when the only class that fit an opening in her schedule was physical anthropology. "On the first day of class I remember thinking, 'I can’t believe people get to do this stuff for a living!' I was hooked. I am a scientific type of person, constantly observing and asking why. I genuinely want an answer," she says.

As demand grew, West Oʻahu and Leeward faculty members partnered to develop the Certificate in Applied Forensic Anthropology. The CAFA program was approved in 2005 and launched in fall 2006. It includes courses in biology, anthropology, archaeology, forensic investigations and criminal procedure.

"The development of CAFA was definitely student driven," says Falgout. It wasn’t idle interest. Central Identification Laboratory Deputy Science Director Robert Mann describes CAFA students as enthusiastic and mature. "They can’t seem to get enough of forensic anthropology and crime scene investigation. One of the things I like about the students is they’re not afraid to ask questions."

Forensic anthropology is becoming more popular around the world, Mann says. "It’s a discipline that lets us reconstruct past events based on evidence. People are always surprised to see how much we can tell about someone from their skeleton. It’s like reconstructing a three-dimensional puzzle—the more pieces you can put together, the more complete the picture." Identity can be determined from a handful of bones—even if they have been broken up, burned and scattered, he says.

Just the program for Leeward graduate Jennifer Hackforth. She was attending West Oʻahu, planning to major in psychology, when a physical anthropology class with Leeward Professor Grace Miller triggered memories of a sixth grade assignment to reassemble a mouse’s skeleton. "I loved that project and I got an A." Even back then, she says, she had a fascination with bones.

Brooke Ward’s epiphany was similar. After taking Holland’s forensics investigation class, forensic anthropology became her passion. So much so that her husband calls her a forensic groupie.

In CAFA, basic academic courses taught by West Oʻahu and Leeward instructors are augmented with forensic anthropology classes taught by personnel from the Central Identification Lab. CIL is the largest and most prestigious forensic anthropology lab in the nation, Falgout says. "Our students are learning from the best in the field."

There are only 62 certified anthropologists in the United States and Canada, and CIL has 6 of them. Primarily known for identifying missing soldiers, CIL’s expertise is sought for other identification efforts as well, including work at the Pentagon after 9-11 and in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Hackforth says she couldn’t ask for better instructors, though she doesn’t know how they manage it. "They work in the lab all day, and then they shoot over here and teach classes at night." In addition, they could be deployed, and they travel to other states to conduct training.

Ward took Mann’s advanced techniques class this spring. "We’re given a case to investigate, and then we have to present our argument of the victim’s age, ancestry and more," she says. Mann even set up a mock crime scene for students to excavate.

"We aren’t learning just from textbooks. We get to learn about the instructors’ cases, see their pictures, hear their stories," says Hackforth. Forget what you see on TV, adds Ward. "This is definitely not CSI. Investigators are on their hands and knees going over an area. They don’t just walk around and spot something."

Real-world experience gets even more hands-on with the certificate’s practicum requirement. Both Hackforth and Ward are interning at CIL. Ward helped identify objects found with World War II remains from the lab’s synoptic collection. The collection consists of material, such as parachute parts, straps, rivets and shoes, that is brought back from the field and stored. Once a case is closed, the lab keeps the best samples to use as reference items in identifying materials from new cases. Hackforth is inputting information from CIL case files into a database. When complete, the database will be used to determine how accurate CIL anthropologists are in determining characteristics such as age, race and height.

"Everyone at the lab is great," Ward says. "They are always willing to sit down with you if you have questions. They really want you to learn and to keep current." CIL staff provide the interns with as many different opportunities as possible. Ward rode along when the Honolulu medical examiner’s office requested CIL assistance. The experience quickly lets you know if you can deal with soft tissue or should stick with bones, she says. "It didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would."

CAFA helps prepare students for a number of jobs, including criminalists, crime scene and evidence technicians, forensic anthropologists and archaeologists. Forensic skills are very desirable; those who have them can work with death investigators, coroners and medical examiners. "The future of forensic anthropology and crime scene investigation is in the hands of students like those attending UH West Oʻahu and Leeward," says Mann.

After graduating from West Oʻahu, Ware was commissioned in the Air Force and became a federal agent for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. "What I love best about my job is how dynamic and different each day is, how challenging solving a case can be and the huge sense of satisfaction I feel when justice is done," she says. After completing an accelerated master’s of forensic science at George Washington University, she will be stationed in Japan as the forensic science consultant to all Air Force installations in Asia and the Pacific. She will respond to scenes that require specialized forensic techniques, attend autopsies, train field agents and provide consultation on the more complicated death, sexual assault and drug investigations.

"I absolutely loved my experience at West O’ahu," Ware says. Although she graduated before the certificate was available, she daily uses skills she learned in anthropology classes. "Investigations are inherently scientific—I observe, I form a question, I hypothesize an answer, I test that answer, I gather data and evaluate whether that answer is an accurate conclusion. What is the scientific process if not an investigation into a scientific question?"

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