First, the good news. By all accounts, forensic
anthropology is a rewarding profession that allows lifelong learning
and a slew of good stories for your friends. And
despite the requisite toughness of the senses, there is more interest
in forensic anthropology than ever before. The number of graduate programs is on the rise.
Partly because of this, however, it is a fiercely
competitive field dominated by a handful of experts.
"The best advice I can give is be multidisciplinary,"
says Vass. "The more multidisciplinary you are, the better crime
scene investigator you are."
As evidence, Vass told us a story that may
as well have leapt off your TV screen:
"[The investigator] knew a lot about tree growth and the environment
-- he knew that trees suck up contaminates," Vass explains. "That illustrates
how multidisciplinary you have to be to solve a crime. Don't just
take biology. Take chemistry. Take physics. Take geology. Forensics
is in every branch of science."
A man kills his wife. His girlfriend
watches as he places the body in a 55-gallon drum, douses it with
kerosene and lights a match. He dumps the scorched contents onto
the edge of an empty field. Three years later, the couple
splits. The woman goes to the police and describes the murder.
Investigators find no trace of a crime at the scene. They test
the soil and find nothing. But one of the investigators has an
idea: He saws off a limb from a tree on the edge of the field
and traces the tree's annual growth rings back three years. In
the lab, he is able to isolate kerosene within that ring. The
suspect is convicted although a body is never found.
Galloway agrees. But, she adds, be warned: "It's
a lot less glamorous than people think. I watched five minutes of
one episode of CSI and got so annoyed I turned it off. Most of us
consult from outside and are not part of prosecution team -- we're
independent expert witnesses, there to represent the victim, not
to get the person who committed the crime."
"I get to the courtroom and there's a whole
bank of guys wearing suits, and it takes some time for me to figure
out which one is the defendant. I have no connection with getting
that person. In novels, we're always being chased by serial killers.
I don't think so."
Forensic anthropologists often have a lot
of work to do before a body looks like this one. But with time,
nature does the most macabre job -- cleaning the bones. Courtesy
Arpad Vass, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
And about the day job, Galloway admits her
work is fascinating but not for everyone. "You have to be very good
and have a lot of breadth. You spend a lot of time cleaning off
yucky bodies." It helps, she adds, if you "have a strong stomach
and an incredibly weak sense of smell."
We're sorry to be a wet blanket, but take
heart. If the career isn't for you, at least one possibility remains:
Nothing smells in our bibliography.