Alumnae Dr. Jane Wankmiller, Director of FROST

Dr Jane WankmillerWe are very proud to announce that our recent alumna, Dr. Jane Wankmiller, is the new Director of the Forensic Research Outdoor Station (FROST), and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Northern Michigan University (NMU). FROST, is currently under construction, and will function as an outdoor forensic anthropology research and training facility located in Marquette, MI, near the NMU campus. Her position is part of a new major in anthropology started Fall Semester 2017. Currently, NMU offers concentrations in either cultural anthropology or archaeology, and Dr. Wankmiller will be bringing a third concentration in physical anthropology to the program. She will develop course work over the next few years to serve as the basis for that concentration and as prerequisites for students who wish to work on projects associated with the forensic anthropology lab or the FROST.

Dr. Wankmiller’s general research interests stemmed from working for the Michigan State Police (MSP) throughout her graduate career in anthropology here at Michigan State University. During that time, she assisted on several cases and was called on for advice in several others. Her work generated specific research questions about estimation of time since death, search and recovery, and positive identification of decomposed remains, but due to the nature of her position within MSP, opportunities to explore those questions never surfaced. While at NMU, Dr. Wankmiller will consult as a forensic anthropologist on medical examiner cases involving decomposed human remains and remains requiring positive identification and skeletal trauma analysis. She will also be developing a workshop program to provide training for law enforcement, educators, and students in the Upper Peninsula. These various research opportunities will allow her to finally examine some of the questions her work with the MSP provided.

Originally, Dr. Wankmiller was a biology major with an interest in scientific illustration. It was in art school when she enrolled in her first anthropology class. It changed her life and in her own words, “It showed me how connected we all are to one another and how our past has shaped our present.” This is the moment she realized she wanted a career in anthropology. Given her focus was always more biological, the realization that she could study human remains and still be an anthropologist caused her focus to shift and through the discovery of forensic anthropology, an awareness that her knowledge of human skeletal remains could make an immediate impact on real-time cases was realized. She quickly changed her academic trajectory and never turned back. Dr. Jane Wankmiller graduated in 2010 with an MS in Forensic Science (concentration in anthropology) and in 2016 with a Ph.D. in Anthropology (focus on bioarchaeology) from MSU.

Jane’s current work with NMU builds on her past work with MSU’s own Dr. Norm Sauer as his assistant for forensic anthropology cases.

Dr Wankmiller in the field

Dr. Wankmiller working in the field

This opportunity allowed her to work with the local medical examiner’s office as a death investigator. Both positions factored into her employment with the MSP. Her position at FROST allows her experiences to coalesce in a meaningful way. Her future research interests lie in the improvement of forensic art techniques, and the contributions they can potentially yield regarding effects of taphonomy on forensic anthropology.

FROST is only the 8th such facility in the United States, with a similar facility in Massachusetts focusing on studying the taphonomy and postmortem condition of non-human subjects. In that regard, the work at FROST is not new, but it stands to contribute to our understanding of human decomposition and taphonomy as it is the farthest north of all such facilities. The extreme northern nature of FROST will enable Dr. Wankmiller to systematically study the effects of a cold climate on those processes. Through the collaborative research between the NMU facility and the other facilities across the country, Jane is hopeful they can serve the law enforcement and medical examiner communities with high quality forensic anthropology services and training that complement those of MSU Forensic Anthropologists.

As far as the near future goes, the infrastructure for the forensic anthropology research facility and the accompanying laboratory should be in place by the spring of 2018. Dr. Wankmiller anticipates starting some of their law enforcement training workshops and educational programs by the summer of 2018.