Alumni CLASnotes Spring 2005

Forensics Unwrapped


Mummy Investigators Solve the Ultimate Cold Case Files

When television producer Kate Botting started putting together a new series for the Discovery Channel, Mummy Autopsy, in late 2003, and needed to recruit five scientists to co-host the program, one of the first places she looked was the University of Florida’s C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory. Established in 1991, the lab is recognized as one of the top training grounds for forensic anthropologists in the world.

“We began a mass search to find the right presenters, looking throughout Europe and America,” Botting says. “We were looking for presenters who had an adventurous spirit, were well respected in their field, and had the ability to convey complex ideas in a way the audience can understand.”

Based on the recommendations of Pound Lab director Anthony Falsetti, Botting selected two forensic scientists who both got their start at UF—anthropology PhD candidate Heather Walsh-Haney and University of Central Florida Assistant Professor John Schultz, who received his PhD in anthropology from UF in 2003. The two have traveled to remote locations and used cutting-edge forensic science to unwrap clues about some of the world’s most intriguing mummies. The show premiered on December 7 and will continue throughout March, with a new episode airing each Tuesday night at 8 pm on the cable network.

Walsh-Haney presents her work in four shows, including her examinations of an Iron Age warrior and Egyptian mummies, while Schultz is in nine shows, examining 1879 War of the Pacific soldiers and a mummy discovered in the Andean foothills of Peru. Both have signed a contract for four more seasons with the Discovery Channel and plan to continue with the show if it is picked up again next year.

“It has been a fantastic experience because I have been able to look at skeletonized remains that I would never have had the chance to see this early in my career,” Walsh-Haney says. As for Schultz, “For me it was nice because, as a forensic anthropologist, I am usually looking at modern remains, and this gave me the chance to look at older remains.”

Working closely with local law enforcement and the government, forensic anthropologists are experts in skeletal remains and often help solve crimes and identify individuals who died in mass disasters, wars, homicides, suicides or accidents. As one of the busiest forensic anthropology laboratories in the US, the Pound Lab handles between 100–120 cases annually, working with 24 medical examiners in Florida, and agencies in New York, Georgia, Texas and Alabama.

UF anthropology PhD candidate Heather Walsh-Haney examines a 3,500-year-old sarcophagus on location in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for the Discovery Channel’s Mummy Autopsy.
UF anthropology PhD candidate Heather Walsh-Haney examines a 3,500-year-old sarcophagus on location in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh for the Discovery Channel’s Mummy Autopsy.

 

“Forensic anthropology is a place where you can use very hard sciences—like DNA work and chemistry—and have a very applicable social impact.”

—Allan Burns
Anthropology Professor

 

University of Central Florida anthropologist John Schultz, who received his PhD from UF in 2003, examines a femur bone in Wyoming in front of the camera.
University of Central Florida anthropologist John Schultz, who received his PhD from UF in 2003, examines a femur bone in Wyoming in front of the camera.

Undergraduates interested in becoming forensic anthropologists usually major in psychology, anthropology or biology and then, if admitted into graduate school at UF, they can pursue an MS and PhD in anthropology, with a focus in forensics. According to Allan Burns, former chair of anthropology and current CLAS associate dean for faculty affairs, roughly one-third to one-half of UF anthropology undergraduates are interested in becoming forensic anthropologists, though the department is only able to accept one or two new forensic anthropology graduate students each year.
“This field is hot right now, with shows like CSI and Patricia Cornwell novels the popular interest has greatly increased,” Burns says. “I think the newfound interest in forensics also reflects a change in students’ worldview. Forensic anthropology is a place where you can use very hard sciences—like DNA work and chemistry—and have a very applicable social impact. Today’s students are bringing a broader skill set to the university, and forensic anthropology allows students with a very strong science background to use molecular biology to solve crimes and human rights cases.”

As evidenced on Mummy Autopsy, forensic anthropologists can even help solve mysteries hundreds of years old. In the 1990s, experts from the Pound Lab were invited by the Russian government to serve on the team of international scientists that positively identified the newfound remains of the Russian Imperial family, the Romanovs, executed by Bolsheviks in 1918. Founding Pound Lab Director William Maples and Falsetti were able to identify the remains of Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II, as well as those of his wife Alexandra, their older daughters Olga and Tatiana, the family doctor and three servants. Two bodies were missing—the young prince, Alexei, and one of the two younger daughters, Anastasia or Maria. Though the remains of one of the two younger princesses were discovered in the mass family grave, it is widely disputed whether they were those of Maria or the legendary Anastasia.

Connie Mulligan, a biological anthropologist in the Department of Anthropology and associate director of UF’s Genetics Institute, was recently commissioned by the Hispanic television network Univision to determine whether the 24-year-old remains of a Colombian woman were those of Maria. By comparing DNA evidence of the living daughter of the woman who had claimed in life to be the missing Maria Romanov to samples recovered from Empress Alexandra, Mulligan was able to debunk the Colombian family’s claims. She was interviewed on the Univision newsmagazine, Primer Impacto, which aired in late November.

Researchers from the Pound Lab have also helped identify victims from the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, as well as in the airplane crash of ValuJet flight 592 that went down in the Florida Everglades in 1996. When dealing with such heartbreaking cases, Walsh-Haney says it helps to debrief with co-workers.

“Unfortunately, we deal on a smaller scale with that kind of human tragedy every day,” she says. “There is a banter that exists between us that keeps everyone going—we know that we are helping this person and bringing them justice. Part of living is dying, and since we will always have people who die before their time, we will always need people to investigate it.”

--Buffy Lockette


Photo:
Walsh-Haney photo courtesy of James Murrell
John Schultz photo courtesy of John Schultz

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Friday, 13-Aug-2010 14:22:21 EDT