Forensic anthropology progresses at NMU

Jane Harris, director of the Northern Michigan University Center for Forensic Anthropology, speaks Tuesday at a public talk at Jamrich Hall about the center. Guests from the University of Salzburg, Austria, also took part in the event. (Journal photo by Christie Mastric)

MARQUETTE — Newly branded as the Northern Michigan University Center for Forensic Anthropology, more research is planned for the program that has helped law enforcement and scientists continue their specialized work.

Center Director Jane Harris provided an update on the program, which has existed for about five years, on Tuesday at a public talk at Jamrich Hall.

“It’s a really dynamic program that is involving a number of collaborations, both within campus and among Northern and different universities,” Harris said. “I think that’s really important for everybody to see, that we are out there, and we are really doing some really cool things for our students.”

Harris said the program primarily is for undergraduates, but a master’s program is being developed to complement the undergrad program and expand the research potential.

Part of the center is the Forensic Research Outdoor Station, a unique outdoor research facility in that it’s located at a northern latitude that allows scientists and students to conduct research on the effects that cold temperatures, significant snow accumulation and the freeze-thaw cycle have on human decomposition and taphonomy.

Through a special program, bodies are donated and placed in a fenced-off area not far from U.S 41 South and Lake Superior. Here researchers can study what happens to bodies in a cold climate.

However, don’t call it a “body farm.”

The term, Harris said, comes from Patricia Cornwell’s novel, “The Body Farm.”

“It takes away from the science of it, and it makes it a little bit too macabre for all of us, and even the people that I’ve talked to who aren’t really fond of what we do, who don’t really understand it and are kind of put off by it, take this, and they think we’re just throwing people out in a field and not being very respectful, so I try to just stay away from that,” she said.

Harris said the researchers are respectful of the donor families’ wishes. In fact, one requests involves a woman’s favorite book being placed alongside her.

Extensive questionnaires providing information about potential donors’ traits such as eye color, height, smoking history, major surgeries and injuries must filled out, she said.

“Drug use of certain kinds will affect bone remodeling and things like that, so we need to know what we’re seeing as much as we can from our donors,” Harris said.

Next of kin also must sign off on the process, she said, so they know what will happen when the donors pass away.

Science, though, is at the forefront of FROST research.

“Mainly what we study out at our outdoor facility is human taphonomy,” Harris said. “Taphonomy refers to all of the processes that affect a human body after death — and all of our donors are very well informed before they donate that we are going to be studying them outdoors.”

Researchers, she said, learn about processes unique to the local environment, how that changes the processes of decomposition and how it changes insect development. They also have been studying necrobiomes, which are bacteria found in the human body after death.

“We found some really interesting things that we can relate back to even potentially specific people,” said Harris, who noted they might help with cases involving missing persons or unidentified bodies.

Harris, a forensic artist, said the center works with the forensic art and the facial recognition communities.

“We study people, how they change over the course of their lives, to either do age progressions or facial reconstructions for unidentified remains,” she said.

Center studies also focus on topics such as cold temperature on necrobiomes; bullet, mycology and entomology studies; and soil and vegetation analysis.

To learn more about the center, email frost@nmu.edu.

Guests from the University of Salzburg, Austria, also gave presentations on forensic science research during the event. For instance, Stefan Pittner, assistant professor at the University of Salzburg, talked about “Postmortem Protein Degradation to Estimate Time Since Death: Recent Progress and Future Challenges.”

Pitter said work at the university also includes analyses of diatoms, which are single-celled algae with silica walls.

“That can be used for investigating drownings,” he said.


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