Sense of Humerus

Emily Streetman: Anthropology Doctoral Student

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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.

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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.