Sense of Humerus

Emily Streetman: Anthropology Doctoral Student

AAFS2013: digital growth in Forensic Anthropology

Last week, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences had its 65th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. A group of MSU Forensic Anthropology faculty and students, myself included, attended. Of these, few use social media professionally. In such a small-world field, it’s easy to  understand why. All of the more senior researchers know each other personally. Most are employed in academia and any one of them could name the handful of other employers where forensic anthropologists work (New York OCME, Harris County OME, Pima County OME, JPAC/CIL, etc.). For fields in which this is less common, such as archaeology, social media allows people working on similar things to connect when they might otherwise not.

I’ve only attended a few meetings, but there was a minimum of Twitter action at AAFS2012. This year, a few more individuals participated in the hashtag discussion. Are you surprised to know that the exhibitors were among the most-Tweeting entities? Perhaps the increase in participation will signal a trend in future years, too.

Regarding the role of digital in the presentations, there was one that stuck out. FOROST was presented to attendees as a trauma photographic database. The presenter noted the number of photographs in the most comprehensive and popular texts and suggested that this resource would quickly outpace them. It is sourced by a group of institutions and credit for the images and information in them should go directly to the individual/lab who collected the data. This, and the fact that it is free to participate, likely eased the fears of many in the audience. It reminded me of a brown bag presentation I saw of a similar database by/for archaeologists. In any case, this is probably a great new thing, and I hope it catches on.

There are my digital highlights of the Physical Anthropology section of the AAFS 2013 meeting. I was only in the Anthropology section, so did not catch any presentations that might have been in the other sections. The program was gripping in the PA section this year that I hardly made it down the hall to anyone else! Thanks for a great meetings to everyone who contributed.


Leave a comment

Database brainstorm

Let’s suss this idea out in blog post format, shall we? The database my lab is currently working with for a bioarchaeology project has a very limited number of queries that do not currently function, possibly due to my user error, but even when functioning, the situation is less than ideal. One complete and one nearly complete dissertation have been written using this collection, and each author had to create her own database after entering all of her data in the lab’s database.

At face value, it seems a simple task, since so much data has been collected, for me to ask: How many adults were aged using the fourth rib (a standard method)? I would have to manually pull out and search 200-some adult folders containing 20 pages each and tally the ones who have this bit of data.

I would like to improve this system. The in-progress dissertation author just told me that she’d like to link excavation notes, digital copies of data sheets, and photographic images for each set of remains in this skeletal collection. This is a great idea. Assuming that some volunteer or intern-sourced manpower could be dedicated to data entry, here are some things I’d like researchers to be able to do with the data collected from 400-some medieval skeletons.

[Before the archaeologists in the room start asking about the associated material culture, we don’t have it, but excavation notes should mention its presence, so it can be included in the database. These Christian burials are largely devoid of grave goods, but there were a handful of jewelry items and a few extant pieces of shroud in the cemeteries.]

Input for each individual: pdfs of excavation notes, location of grave on cemetery schematic, pdfs of data entry sheets (with data re-coded or tagged?, to allow search by sex or age group), images and xrays of pathologies (tagged with limited number of disease or symptom tags to allow search for all, say, crania with cribra orbitalia), data collected by, data collected on date, cemetery, skeleton number.

Audience: this is to be an internal organizational system, with access limited at the discretion of the lab director. This would ostensibly include graduate and undergraduate students who have received permission to collect data or perform analysis on the collection.

Back end: volunteers and interns would input the data, using either a scanning xerox machine or a plate scanner and manual data entry.

Front end: the audience is not, in general, technologically inclined and is most familiar with SPSS and Excel to organize data and run statistics. Furthermore, these are the programs that will likely be used for analysis of New Database data, so I would like findings to be exportable. E.g., export the age/sex profile data of all adult females. I always picture these sorts of filters as similar to when I shop at Best Buy online. I’m looking for (male/female/either) (adult/subadult) (age range:0—–20 sliding scale) (with:right and left femurs).

How can I do this? Omeka and Kora are both database scaffoldings, but I’ve heard a variety of reviews about both and I don’t remember which is which.


Additional note: It might be possible to use one of the pre-existing excel sheets as a base for this.

Leave a comment

Conference: FLAG 2012

The setting for FLAG 2012 was autumn in Northern Michigan.

I recently participated in the Forests, Lakes, and Grasslands (FLAG) regional meeting of forensic anthropologists. This was a small conference with representatives from Michigan State University, University of Indianapolis, and Mercyhurst University (in Erie, PA). It’s a relatively informal meeting, with presentations for two days and other activities like a bone quiz, but lots of time built in for building relationships among colleagues.

The great thing about this meeting, is that it’s a small group. It’s regionally consolidated, since the states represented stretch only from Indiana to Pennsylvania, but also with a dense population of new scholars. Indy and Mercyhurst have Masters programs and MSU has a Masters and a PhD program. There were half a dozen faculty members present, but the remaining 40 students were all within their first five or so years of graduate school.

Presentations were varied, and for me the differences between the programs was highlighted. In 2011, each school presented its facilities and general academic program which emphasized the differences between, say, one school requiring students to understand and practice DNA testing and another cross-training in bioarchaeology. But this year, the concept of specializations and the way casework is approached was in the spotlight for me.

Lateral knee radiograph, by Flickr user akeg

Many of the early Masters program students teamed up to present field cases they had worked on, with scene photos and lab procedures featured in their powerpoints. Late Masters students and others presented full research projects with hypotheses, results, and conclusions. For many students, myself included, the latter group represented a trial run for presenting one’s research at the national meetings. I submitted my patella research to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting in August and presented it at FLAG 2012.

What I found, in interacting with faculty from other universities, was that our bread-and-butter activity, namely positive human identification, is not practiced at the other schools. My research, predicated on the notion that many aspects of this work need to be quantified and studied, was seen as unnecessary. It was very surprising. But, as my first project to be presented at a conference (and hopefully my first publication submission), of course it couldn’t all go smoothly. The lesson is that a small sample doesn’t represent the field. The fact that there’s a body of literature, mainly in JFS (the Journal of Forensic Sciences) indicates that this is a valid locus of study. Nevertheless, as a junior scholar, it was a bit jarring.

Overall, the FLAG 2012 meetings were a huge success. There were dozens of interesting presentations and great socializing. I talked to some of the Masters students about whether our PhD program would be the right place for them. (If you are lucky enough to have a choice, my general advice in picking a program is that whatever decision you make, it will be the right one.) We kept it light, shared a campfire each night, and walked away knowing some of the people we’ll spend the next 40 years working alongside. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Fenton and Dr. Latham for putting this meeting together. Their early academic experiences were partly shaped by a small regional meeting like this, and I’m sure that we, too, will look back on this period fondly.

Leave a comment

Value-added skills

Over the past twelve months, I participated in the Cultural Heritage Informatics (CHI) Graduate Fellowship through MATRIX at Michigan State University. The goal of the program in to increase scholarship in the digital humanities and for each fellow to create a product or project by the end.  There were five fellows: three wanted to create digital repositories for their dissertation materials and the other a tool using Twitter’s API. I fell closer in with the former, wanting to digitize methods commonly applied in my discipline.

Among the scholars in this group (a historian, a medical anthropologist, an archaeologist, a digital rhetorician, and me, a forensic anthropologist), forensic anthropology is the “hardest” or most “applied” science, though it is still housed in the College of Social Sciences at MSU. The idea behind the methods of biological profiling is to eliminate most of the interpretation that is the foundation of some other social sciences. Biological profiling is the estimation of age, sex, ancestry, and stature from human skeletal remains, usually in an effort to narrow down the search for a match to unidentified remains.

My colleagues are a very pad-and-pencil group. Some particularly well-funded labs have begun to explore the scientific potential of 3-dimensional scanners and other high-tech tools. For those of us who use the algebraic calculations or morphoscopic (visible to the naked eye) traits developed 40+ years ago, there’s no reason not to go digital, too. The older methods have been tested and shown to be reliable and often revised to increase or quantify their accuracy. They are solid, accurate, federally-admissible-as-evidence methods, and I don’t want to leave them behind just because I think a smartphone can help guide data collection.

East Fee Hall, Michigan State University, photo courtesy of Flickr user John M. Quick

With this in mind, I wanted to make a product that brought together the meat of the articles and books favored by top-notch labs like the MSU Forensic Anthropology Lab and the Joint POW/MIA Command Central Identification Lab (JPAC/CIL). In addition to this exercise, which forced me to become more familiar with the body of literature referenced most often in my field, I had to learn how to fashion it into a public face. This meant learning the basics of html, CSS, and tools like JQuery mobile (a free JavaScript library) to string the pieces together and make this body of material navigable (see my post on new tools). It meant banging my head against the wall when I couldn’t understand the most basic concepts (“What is to FTP?!?”) and a real sense of accomplishment when I was finally able to make anything work.

For the first time, I was surrounded by people who were hooked in to podcasts, blogs, Twitter and who had personal websites. The immediate benefits of learning about programming and the interwebs are obvious to me. I feel more capable of learning new digital things, including Photoshop and R Statistical Package, which were both thrown at me this summer. I’m holding out hope for long-term (read: getting a job) benefits as well. Special thanks and shout-outs to @adventuresnarch, @zenparty, @galarzaalex, @fayanar, and @captain_primate for being comrades in arms through this enterprise.

Leave a comment

My experience as a JPAC visiting scientist

In June 2012, I visited the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command Central Identification Laboratory (JPAC/CIL) at Hickam Joint Base in Honolulu, Hawaii. Despite the lengthy name, you might guess from the “POW/MIA” part of it that their mission is to identify and bring home all unaccounted-for American military servicemembers. It’s the single largest employer of forensic anthropologists in the country, trailed by the New York City Office of the Medical Examiner. You might not know that there are thousands of unaccounted-for American service members from conflicts in the 20th century. What you should know is that the team at JPAC works daily to find Americans’ remains, identify them, and send them home to family members who have lived in limbo for decades.

Photo by Flickr user Beverly & Pack

As a visiting scientist, I was there to work on a specific project. In this case, a two-pronged look at the patella (kneecap) as a uniquely identifying bone. Previous research* by Dr. Carl N. Stephan, the JPAC/CIL anthropologist who sponsored my visit, has looked at the clavicle in a similar way. The clavicle and cervical vertebrae 3-7 is a great locus to start, because all service members had to be screened for tuberculosis in the mid-20th century, so archives are filled with radiographic (x-ray) and photo-fleuroscopic films waiting to be matched to unidentified remains.

The first part of the patella research continues a series of validation studies that show how good forensic anthropologists are at determining a match – does this Person’s medical record match the John Doe in front of you?

The second part is more quantitative. Following Stephan et al. 2011a, we used a NextEngine scanner (3D-imager) to digitize the patella, processed the surface images with Meshlab, derived 15 outlines from each scan, generated Elliptical Fourier coefficients for each using Shape v.1.3.We compared these outlines with outlines derived from radiographs of the same patella in situ and analyzed the results with new code in R. (For a post on my experiences as a novice coding in R, click here.) . The results of both parts of the study have been submitted to the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Overall, I had a great time at JPAC/CIL. Being on a military base was a new experience for me, and this was really only the second lab of which I’ve gotten to see the inner workings. Many of the employees from the CIL participate in the Scientific Working Group for Forensic Anthropology (SWGANTH) along with my advisor, Todd Fenton, so there’s a lot of overlap in the way we do things. However, in addition to lab work, CIL employees also go into the field (mostly in Southeast Asia, but with some European missions) to do recoveries. It’s this that seems to make or break newbies – so I’m interested in getting a taste of it by applying to the Forensic Science Academy, a semester-long program offered by JPAC/CIL that includes a 30-day field mission to Vietnam. Wish me luck!


*Stephan CN, Emanovsky PD, and Tyrrell AJ. 2011a. The use of clavicle boundary outlines to identify skeletal remains of US personnel recovered from past conflicts: results of initial tests. In: Lestrell PE, editor. Proceedings of the First International Symposium of Biological Shape Analysis. 2009 Jun 3–5. Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

Stephan CN, Winburn AP, Christensen AF, and Tyrrell AJ. 2011b. Skeletal Identification by Radiographic Comparison: Blind Tests of a Morphoscopic Method Using Antemortem Chest Radiographs. Journal of Forensic Sciences 56:320–332.

Leave a comment

Ethics and human skeletal remains

All opinions are strictly those of the author and do not represent any institution or department discussed herein. This post is meant as an exercise in defining personal philosophy, not a definitive statement.

Image from Flick user llamnudds

In a seminar this week, a group of graduate students including myself were encouraged to create a personal statement on ethics, much as any new PhD writes up his or her philosophy of teaching. This is an intimidating assignment and possibly a risky one for me to put online. It will probably take a few sessions to boil down my many thoughts into a coherent statement; the conversation sent my thoughts in so many directions that an exercise in articulating my views on ethics will be just a start.

Here in the United States, discussions about ethics center around the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) and its implications for museum and university collections. In our post-colonial country, this Act attempts to right the wrongs of grave-robbing committed by such institutions in the name of science. For new excavations, state laws address how Native American remains need to be disinterred and reinterred in collaboration with Native representatives. These issues are complex in the extreme and involve any number of variables, but they still only address domestic issues.

Turner and Andrushko (2011) discuss how Americans working abroad need to consider the ethical implications of their bioarchaeological research. Using Peru as an example, they mention that although American researchers have communicated and shared their work with the mestizo/a majority, the marginalized Quechua- and Aymara-speaking public should also be integrated. It is these groups who consider themselves the cultural descendants of the prehistoric populations being studied, and they should be included as field assistants and researchers because of this relationship.

What does one do in a situation where no descendants claim relationship with the deceased?

Salvage archaeology was carried out along the 4th cataract of the Nile from 2006-2007 under the Merowe Dam Salvage Archaeology Project (link to publications by the International Society for Nubian Studies.) The Sudanese government eventually relocated residents once the dam reached a certain level of completion, but at the time of excavation, locals were included in the workforce and research team at sites such as Mis Island. As Muslims, these locals felt strong kinship with all burials in the Muslim part of the cemetery but none with the Christian (earlier, medieval) part of the cemetery. They were enthusiastic to help excavate what they considered to be “our” (Christian) cultural heritage, as long as the team respected their wishes to leave the other graves alone.

The Sudanese government asked a variety of international agencies to help with the salvage archaeology; the skeletal collection resulting from this excavation is being curated long-term by the British Museum and is on loan to Michigan State University for documentation and research.

Only about 5% of the population in Sudan is Christian. I wonder whether these communities are organized enough or have enough political power to request the reburial of these remains. Most of these individuals would fall on the other side of the monophysite-dyophysite schism that developed under Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Their ancestors would likely have been culturally distinct from the Makurrian nationals disinterred at Mis Island. But this only confounds my question:

When there is no descendant population to defer to, what are our responsibilities to the deceased?

Should we rebury the collection once data collection is complete? On one hand, there’s nothing under-the-table about this archaeological excavation. It was sanctioned by the local government, aided by the local people, and no local descendants opposed to the work. The remains are treated respectfully and are being studied to elucidate the culture and lifeways of this medieval population. On the other hand, because the religious beliefs of the community are reasonably well-documented – and we can certainly see from the field notes that there was adherence to specific mortuary rituals – perhaps the desires of the deceased can be inferred and should be respected. When all the data is collected, should these individuals be reinterred? If so, where? Should someone in particular preside over such a ceremony?

Now, these questions are functionally moot. I, a lowly graduate student at an institution on the receiving end of a long-term collection loan, have no say at all about what the British Museum does or does not do with these remains. And, really, I’m more interested in posing the questions than trying to find the answers. Other issues seem fairly cut-and-dry; at least, current legislation in the U.S. makes domestic issues unambiguous. But doesn’t that make addressing other questions our responsibility?

Leave a comment

Writing Workshop

Image from Flickr user hummyhummy, Creative Commons licensed

I attended a writing workshop held at Michigan State University’s writing center last month. It got me thinking about the writing process generally and how daunting it can seem. (It is always terrifying to me at the beginning.) Here are a few themes we discussed, and my take on them.

Writing to different audiences and in different media:

This is where tone and level of discourse come into play. All of the following platforms or media require a different touch. I forget this often– since most of what I’m reading is peer-reviewed scholarly journals, I tend to produce complex sentences with high-level vocabulary, even in quick emails to colleagues. But it’s important to recognize that the audience changes with each new “thing” you write.

  • Conferences 
  • Dissertation
  • Emails
  • Blog posts: @Captain_primate describes academic blogging as “relaxed scholarly discourse.” Somehow, maybe because I was raised to write prim and proper thank you notes to my own relatives, “relaxed” and “scholarly” have never seemed to go together. I’m working on it, though.
  • Creative writing

Finding an Audience

Naturally, there was a pitch for the Writing Center embedded in the workshop, but the point is well taken. Anything academic, especially writing, suffers from being kept isolation. Try to find someone who is at your level (graduate instead of undergraduate, for example) to read or listen to your paper, even if it’s just a draft. I ask for advice when I know I need help, so someone who is critical and gives their honest opinion works best for me. Even if this Audience is not in your field, at least they will be a listening ear. Elements like overall structure and flow benefit from an Outsider’s perspective.

On the other hand, keep in mind the structure usually seen in your field’s articles. Know what you’re aiming for stylistically (is it all prose? do you need a materials and methods section?), and don’t be afraid to speak up if the Audience doesn’t understand a field-specific technical term.

Writing centers are a great resource for such feedback. Most offer repeating appointments to keep you accountable and working continuously. There are also writing groups led by students such as @adventuresnarch – this allows you the opportunity to be on both sides of the editing table. Turning a critical eye to someone else’s work can key you in to problems that might appear in your own writing.

Writing strategies

Almost no one can sit down at a blank screen and walk away at the end of the day with a complete document. There are a variety of long-term strategies for planning out your weekly schedule and writing multiple drafts, as well as short-term solutions for writer’s block or other difficulties throughout the day.

  • Learn new strategies: books such as  Writing Your Dissertation in15 Minutes a Day include a variety of ideas for different types of people to find solutions, even in short amounts of time each day.
  • Set a  routine: try to minimize distractions during the day, or at least during your writing time. E.g. Skype with parents over meals only.
  • Join a writing group to stay accountable and create urgent deadlines when your “real” deadlines are a long time off.
  • Use organizational tools that cross platforms or software like Endnote and Zotero
  • Use a voice recorder in the car, during your commute, to “jot down” ideas to work on later.
  • Put the work aside and come back. Frustration won’t get you far.
  • Work out, cook, garden: have a hobby that allows you to take your mind off your writing in order to reset and come back with a fresh attitude.

Workshops like these are useful. They allow you to gain perspective on the topic, identify your strengths and weaknesses, and reinvigorate your process.