[UTA Magazine]


The real world of forensic anthropology

Dana Austin

A tour bus headed for Las Vegas mysteriously crashes in the Mohave Desert, killing six passengers and injuring a dozen others. The driver, a white male in his 30s, was the only one wearing a seatbelt. Police suspect foul play.

A team of forensics experts arrives at the scene. One member of the team begins questioning the driver.

Stop right there, says forensic anthropologist and UTA Adjunct Assistant Professor Dana Austin. This scenario from an episode of the CBS series, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, would never play out in her world.

"I don't ever talk to suspects—ever," says the six-year veteran of the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office. "They [the TV show's writers] take three different fields-crime scene analysis, homicide investigation and laboratory analysis-and combine them into one person. Every time our class met last semester, we went over CSI and whether or not it was fictional."

"As a scientist, I'm able to confirm that the methods I've used are reliable. ...As a human being, I'm able to help loved ones of the deceased find closure and hopefully some level of peace."
-Adjunct Assistant Professor Dana Austin

Due in part to the drama's No. 3 showing in last season's Nielsen ratings, forensic science has grabbed the spotlight. A spinoff, CSI: Miami, is scheduled for the fall.

"This has a very popular appeal right now because of all the media attention," Dr. Austin said. "I think it started with the X-Files, and it has taken off."

Some of that media attention focused on her last summer when KXAS-TV Channel 5 aired a segment on unclaimed bodies that featured her examining the remains of a man she eventually identified.

Real-world forensic anthropology may not be as glamorous as the CSI version, Dr. Austin says, but it's equally fascinating.

One of her biggest challenges is determining the age of skeletal remains, which can be crucial in criminal investigations. As a trace analyst, she examines small materials that have forensic significance.

"I look at hairs, fibers, small bits of paint, gunpowder. I look at a lot of clothing for these types of materials."

She also analyzes trauma to bones. In cases of suspected strangulation, for example, she examines the larynx for evidence of fracture.

She passes along her knowledge to UTA students taking her human osteology and forensic anthropology courses. They don't necessarily want to become forensic anthropologists. Some are archeology students who must learn to recognize human bones in the field or biology students interested in other areas of forensic science.

A few, Dr. Austin has discovered, are interested because of the media hype. At the beginning of each semester, she asks her students why they're taking her forensic anthropology class. "I had two who actually said, 'I want to be on CSI,' " she said with a laugh.

By the end of the semester, Dr. Austin has made sure they're firmly grounded in reality.


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