Forensic teams work in local cases, gain experience

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In 1990, Professor of Biology and Anthropology Stephen Nawrocki,  founded the University of Indianapolis Archaeology and Forensics Laboratory.

Originally the lab only worked in Indiana, but has spread to Illinois, South Africa, Belize, Chile and the Texas/Mexico border.

According to Assistant Professor of Biology and Anthropology Krista Latham, the lab team is composed mostly of graduate human biology students. Being able to participate in the forensic work is an extracurricular part of the program.

“Students learn a lot about human anatomy and human genetics, but are also participating in forensic casework outside of the classroom,” Latham said.

The majority of the students who enter this program want to be forensic scientists.  The participation could be assisting at a crime scene with the recovery of decomposed human remains, burials or assisting coroners in the identification of the bodies.

Indiana works on a coroner system, which means that each county in Indiana has a coroner in charge of all the human remains at crime scenes in the county. The UIndy lab must be invited by a coroner to a crime scene.

“We aren’t police officers,” Latham said. “We don’t have badges. We are not automatically included in these investigations. We are invited by the coroner.”

The forensics lab members consider what they do as service to the community, service learning and hands-on learning for their students.

“You can never learn this just from a book,” Latham said. “These hands-on experiences are instrumental for students who want to be able to do this after they graduate.”

Students are able to use the work that they do in the forensics lab for help in professional training.  Many graduates and undergraduates who work in the lab have a desire to work either in field experience or doing lab work in general.

“Whether we ultimately are pursuing a career in forensics or not, lab and field experience are very important, because we are working in a very professional setting,” said graduate human biology major Ryan Strand. “There is no room for mistakes in forensic work . . . . With no room for mistakes, we learn to work as professionals, preparing us for any professional field we pursue in the future.”

The forensics lab works on some cases of the recently deceased and on human rights cases.

“[There is] nothing more sensitive or more personal than investigating how an individual died or identifying an individual,” Latham said.

In preparation for working with the lab, graduate students have to take the course, Gross Anatomy, which deals with the dissection of human cadavers.

“Dr. Latham and Dr. Nawrocki let us test our abilities as scientists by letting us perform our own analysis on cases,” Strand said.“Having professors trust us, test us, and develop us as professionals is extremely rewarding . . . . It is always an incredible feeling to know that your countless hours of training have helped someone in need.”

When it comes to working with law enforcement,  lab members only collect the human remains to analyze. Law enforcement officials will collect all other belongings like clothing or evidence. Then once each side has reached a conclusion, they come together and put together the pieces of the story.

The lab averages 75 to 100 cases a year. With this many cases and the few times that the professors have had to testify in court, they teach their students good note taking skills.

“Oftentimes it can take a case five to 10 years to go to trial,” Latham said.  “And then it just depends if the accused accepts the plea or whether or not they admit to committing the crime. A very small percentage of our cases go to court . . . . We teach our students [to take] very good notes and very good photographs.”

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