‘Reality’ CSI

Forensic anthropology class

Dawnie Steadman explains the articulation of the sternum and ribs to students in her Anthropology 480 (Human Osteology) class.

It can be described as morbid curiosity, rubbernecking, or car crash syndrome; most have experienced it in some form. Whether passing by a wreck on the side of the road, a vandalized building, or a house fire, the human tendency is to want to know what happened beyond the yellow tape. Perhaps that is why the popular television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation topped the Nielsen ratings for four consecutive years.

Forensic anthropologist Dawnie Steadman, professor and director of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC), believes shows like CSI are popular because they take people behind the tape and explain how matters often concealed to the public unfold.

Yet Steadman is quick to add that forensic science is a lot different from what is portrayed on TV. While she does work with law enforcement agents to a certain degree, she doesn’t have a cute FBI agent following her around; she doesn’t interrogate suspects; and she’s not responsible for synthesizing all the evidence from other investigators in a case.

Despite CSI’s sometimes outlandish stories and romanticized notions of solving a case within an hour, the show’s popularity has heightened students’ interest in the field, and Steadman and Andrew Kramer, professor and head of the Department of Anthropology, are grateful for that.

“In real life, forensic analysis is a lot more complex and difficult in many respects, but in that sense it is more satisfying, too,” Kramer says. “You have to work hard to get the answers that don’t come easily.”

And more than a quarter of the nation’s board-certified forensic anthropologists have studied at UT’s world-renowned Anthropological Research Facility—more commonly known as the Body Farm—to acquire the knowledge, tools, and skills to get those answers. The facility was founded by William M. Bass in 1981 at its current location near the UT Medical Center and was the first of its kind to permit the systematic study of human decomposition.

Researchers use the facility to process the remains of donated bodies that are placed in different naturalistic settings to investigate time since death and the environment’s effect on decomposition. The average length of time for a donation to be at the facility is about two years. Once the remains become skeletal, they are then collected, cleaned, and accessioned into the William M. Bass Donated Skeletal Collection, the largest modern day bone collection of its kind in the U.S.

Forensic anthropology students

Students in Steadman’s anthropology class get hands on experience analyzing real, human bones.

“More than 2,000 individuals have committed to donate their bodies to the facility upon their death,” Steadman says. “They are the crux of the program, and without their generosity and interest in science, we would not be able to conduct the research that we do.”

And now, the FAC has a state-of-the-art building that will allow for more synchronous research studies than ever before. Thanks to donations from Bass and Jimmy and Dee Haslam, the William M. Bass Forensic Anthropology Building was completed in September 2011, adjacent to the Anthropological Research Facility. With first-rate processing equipment and an intake laboratory, more graduate and undergraduate students and faculty are able to continue the study of time since death, as well as conduct new research on new applications of DNA technology and how stable isotopes can assist identification.

This semester, more than seventy undergraduate students either volunteer their time or work as interns for credit at the facility. Students work closely with graduate students and faculty, handling bones, analyzing variations, and asking questions. For example, by studying bones, students can reconstruct an individual’s sex, ancestry, age, and injuries suffered to help law enforcement officials confirm or determine the identity of missing persons.

“The work at the Body Farm and FAC is really a unique opportunity for undergrads,” Kramer says. “This is what has put this department on the map, and it all started with Dr. Bass and the facility we have here.”

The FAC also offers professional development training, held in the classroom of the Bass building, for law enforcement, fire, and medical professionals to learn how to handle the discovery of missing persons and involve UT forensic anthropologists at the scene of a crime.

“Dr. Steadman has arrived at an exciting time in our department,” adds Kramer. “Dr. Richard Jantz [former director of the FAC who is now retired] brought an excellent quantitative approach to the center, and we anticipate Dr. Steadman will build on that foundation and bring new support and recognition to the program as we pursue new research avenues.”

Forensic anthropology class

Steadman shows students how to distinguish the front from the back of a sternum.

Steadman is also interested in developing the next generation of forensic anthropologists. With a grant for outreach awarded by UT’s Office of Research, Steadman recently developed a program called Forensic Files, which consists of training teams of undergraduate and graduate students to go into Knox County high schools and provide hands-on materials, presentations, and exercises for students in criminal science investigation classes.

“We are really looking at this as a pedagogical tool, not just an outreach opportunity,” says Steadman, who hopes to present the program on a larger, national scale in the future. “As a parent, I am very excited by teachers who find extra opportunities to give their students real-world exposure to science that they might not necessarily find in a textbook. You never know if that will spark a child’s interest.”

Because of the center’s solid history and new outreach and research initiatives, the FAC continues to be a world leader in forensic anthropological research, significantly contributing to UT’s journey to become a Top 25 public research university.

–Sara Collins Haywood