Jade S. De La Paz
I am a forensic anthropologist. No, not like Bones, but I’m glad you have heard of it! For those who have not, forensic anthropology is the application of biological anthropology in a medico-legal setting. In reality, it has many more uses than Bones gives it credit for. In forensic anthropology, we focus on estimating the biological profile of human skeletal remains: age, sex, stature, ancestry, trauma, disease, time since death, burial context, number of individuals, etc. All this information, gleaned from skeletal analysis, helps with identification efforts, trauma analysis, and the scientific understanding of death(s).
I come from the United States where there is an abundance of forensic anthropologists working in Medical Examiner’s offices, universities, museums, and at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). I spent the last three and a half years working at DPAA, helping to identify missing soldiers from past US conflicts, and bring them home to their families and their country. But being in the thick of US forensic anthropology can keep you from the amazing scholarship, incredibly intelligent academics and wonderful research opportunities that exist elsewhere in the world. In a science where population differences matter, relying mostly on US-centric methods does not do our science any favours. So, when it came time for me to pursue my PhD, I looked for an encouraging research environment in a place that was not inundated with forensic anthropologists and US-centric research. I was lucky to find that place in the Department of Anatomy at the University of Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand). Here I get to work with three brilliant scientists on a unique project using both clinical anatomy and biological anthropology to answer a forensic anthropology question from a new perspective.
So what am I looking at, exactly? I am studying one part of the biological profile: biological sex estimation. However, instead of approaching this study from an exclusively skeletal analysis perspective, I am taking a holistic approach that looks at not only the skeleton, but also the surrounding soft tissues.
There are a few areas in the cranium (head) and clavicle (collar bone) that are used to estimate sex. Such estimations are based on the observations that more robust (bigger) skeletal traits are associated with males, and more gracile (smaller) traits are associated with females. This is coupled with the general assumption that these areas are directly linked to the size and strength of the soft tissue and muscles that attach to them. But are they? Well, I will tell you, once I know myself!
I do hypothesise, however, that the sex differences seen in the skeleton can also be seen in the associated soft tissues. If true, I can use that information to create a new, holistic sex estimation method that is based on a full understanding of the anatomy of these regions, not solely on their skeletal features. The added benefit is that this study will include European New Zealand (Pākehā) and Thai populations, both of which appear in forensic anthropology research much less often than North American populations.
It is incredibly important to me that I pursue research that is good for the global scientific community, and that focuses on populations and projects that have yet to be explored. Because of forensic anthropology’s strong origins in the USA, much of the research relied on around the world is based on studies carried out on North American populations. This research is not necessarily applicable to other groups. In order to include diverse population information in the forensic anthropology literature and add unique research to an ever growing research base, I reached out to an international institution and I am very happy that I did. Not only am I contributing to the science from a fresh perspective, but I am growing as a scientist through international learning and partnerships.
Jade S. De La Paz is an international PhD student at the University of Otago, and has been working in the field of forensic anthropology since 2010. She and her partner moved from Hawaii in March and are excited to be a part of life in Dunedin and New Zealand while she completes her studies.
Jade De La Paz’s cake, “Skull and Cakebones” was an entry in the University of Otago’s recent Bake Your Thesis competition. Read how some of the other entrants cooked up their research ideas:
- in Pharmacy: “A Wave of Pills”
- in Genetics: “I incyst you try some”
- in Physiology: “Towards Safer Births”
Photo credit: Sharron Bennett.