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.
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.