The Bone Doctor

In Buzz, October 2016 by Cameron WalkerLeave a Comment

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CHASS researcher Ann Ross and a human skull. PHOTO BY ROGER WINSTEAD

CHASS researcher Ann Ross and a human skull. PHOTO BY ROGER WINSTEAD

There are stories written in our bones, and forensic anthropologist—and speaker for the dead—Dr. Ann Ross has made it her life’s work to tell them. However, her path wasn’t always so straightforward.

“I started out as an undergraduate doing Latin American Studies,” says Ross, a native of Colón, Panama. “Then my last semester of undergrad I took a class called Introduction to Physical Anthropology. I was like, ‘Wow. I totally messed up…that’s what I should have done!’”

So she returned to school, picked up a second bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from Florida Atlantic University, completed an internship at Miami Dade Medical Examiner’s Office under the innovative Dr. Joe Davis and earned her master’s degree at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, home to the Body Farm, where scientists study the decomposition of human remains. While working on her doctorate, she traveled to Bosnia to assist human rights groups with the identification of victims of genocide. After earning her Ph.D., she spent three years doing post-doctoral work at the University of Florida’s C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory, which she calls her “finishing school.” She has been a professor at N.C. State since 2003.

What does your average day look like?

My main role is actually as a professor at N.C. State. I generally teach one class a semester and run several research projects. We also conduct cases for the state of North Carolina. We are experts in bone, so for anything that happens to the skeleton we get called in as consultants. A good proportion, maybe 40 percent of our work, is to do side-by-side antemortem and postmortem x-ray comparisons. Everyone has had x-rays in life, whether it’s a knee injury or an ankle. So what law enforcement does, if they have a missing person or a potential presumptive identification, they collect that information from when they were alive. Then we take x-rays of the bones themselves and make a comparison.

When you are called to testify, for example, is it always a case that ends in death?

Always. The cases with children are really hard, and you always end up living the case until you can figure something out. It’s a really low part of the job, but, because [the death is] usually produced by a parent or a loved one, you are their only advocate.

What is the best part of what you do?

One of the high points of our job is, hopefully, in the cases where we’ve had homicides, to have our prosecutors convict the perpetrator and give at least some peace to the family members.

What are some common misconceptions of your job?

If you’ve watched the television show “Bones,” we don’t have holograms to do reconstructions of the scene and the crime. Another thing is that we work under full light conditions. If you notice that on “CSI” and “Bones,” everybody is working in the dark.  You really need to have all the lights turned on… plus a magnifying glass. They show up in their Humvees too. The university hasn’t provided one for me yet; I should probably ask.

What else is different from TV?

On the original “CSI,” they could run a DNA sample in two minutes and get a match… but it doesn’t really work that way. First of all, to get a match you need to have something to compare it to. And they put fingerprints through the little computer, and then— bam!—they get a face associated with that fingerprint. Actually, fingerprints are manually scored by print analysts. There’s no automation involved there. So when you come to court and they’re like, “Why didn’t you just do DNA and get a face?,” it’s science fiction. We’re not there yet.

What can the body that we leave behind tell you about our death?

If it’s an unidentified person, we can tell how old you were when you died; we can tell how tall you were; we can tell if you were male or female. We can tell if there was anything that happened during your life, like fractures or disease processes. Ultimately, our job is to find out what happened to you so we can give a scientific opinion to the medical examiner. We can also tell the place of ancestral origin of your remains.

What do you consider your most important work so far?

I developed a software program with my colleague Dennis Slice at Florida State University. If you have an unidentified skull, we can take anatomical landmarks of the skull and plug it into the software, and it will tell you biological sex and ancestry. Last year, we doubled our reference sample to make it applicable to Europeans and others, especially with the migrant crises. It was funded by the National Institute of Justice so the software is free.

What do you tell your students who are interested in pursuing a similar career?

I would say in forensic science in general 80 percent of the scientists are women, but most of the positions of leadership are still held by men. It’s very important for women to mentor women and to help guide them and maneuver some of the intricacies of getting through the job system. ν

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