MSU Forensic Anthropology Lab

Three forensic anthropology PhD students examine a human skull

(left to right) PhD students Mari Isa, Elena Watson, and Alex Goots in the MSU Forensic Anthropology Lab working on the NIJ-funded research project focused on blunt force trauma to adult crania.

The MSU Forensic Anthropology Laboratory, directed by Dr. Todd Fenton, provides some of the best forensic anthropology PhD training in the country thanks to the program’s incredible research, teaching, and service opportunities. Under the supervision of Dr. Todd Fenton and Dr. Joseph Hefner, graduate students gain experience conducting public service forensic work and teaching undergraduate courses. The laboratory’s unparalleled research, primarily funded through the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), contributes to forensic sciences, biomechanical sciences and law enforcement worldwide.

Over the past decade, Dr. Todd Fenton, has received three large grants totaling over $1.7 million dollars from the NIJ. These grants have funded several research projects that are interdisciplinary, cross-college collaborations with co-PIs Dr. Roger Haut, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Dr. Feng Wei of the Department of Radiology through the Orthopaedic Biomechanics Laboratory. The work has also provided excellent opportunities for our own forensic anthropology PhD students (Mari Isa, Alex Goots, and Elena Watson) who are actively involved in the current project. Over the past decade, several past and present MSU Anthropology graduate students have worked on the preceding interdisciplinary skeletal trauma research endeavors including Caitlin Vogelsberg, Emily Streetman, Carolyn (Hurst) Isaac (PhD 2013), and Nick Passalacqua (PhD 2012). These projects address significant gaps in forensic science by providing experimental data and analytical recommendations for interpreting blunt cranial trauma.

PhD student and Dr. Todd Fenton work in the MSU forensics lab

PhD student Mari Isa and Dr. Todd Fenton work in the forensic lab

The collaboration between the two laboratories grew from a natural intersection between the Forensic Anthropology Lab’s role as a consulting laboratory for law enforcement agencies and medical examiner’s offices across the state of Michigan, and the Orthopaedic Biomechanics Labs’ research on joint trauma. As anthropologists and engineers collaborated to determine the most likely causes of injuries in forensic cases involving complicated skeletal trauma, the need for research specifically addressing this issue became clear.

Their current project combines data from biomechanical experiments, computer modeling, and fracture pattern analysis to predict and document how variables like the location of an impact, the shape of an implement, or the energy of a blow affect patterns of cranial fracture. The goal of the project is to provide forensic practitioners with better tools to make scientific assessments about the circumstances of an injury based on cranial fracture patterns.

Dr. Joe Hefner, who joined the department in 2014, has also recently been awarded NIJ and other funding for his research on craniomorphic forensic standards. With the help of his graduate students, Kelly Kamnikar and Amber Plemons, and recent innovations in our laboratory, standard definitions and illustrations of traits that can be seen by the eye and observed without measurements (macromorphoscopic) have been created. These standards are intended to reduce subjectivity and inter- and intra-observer error within databases used for forensic sciences. Creating this standard database necessitates large scale data collection so our researchers have traveled around the country and as far away as Khon Kaen, Thailand for this project.

The research being conducted addresses significant gaps in forensic science standards by: (1) correlating ancestry and the appearance of certain cranial traits in large and globally-diverse samples; (2) establishing a database (The Macromorphoscopic Databank, MaMD) of modern, forensically-significant populations; and, (3) developing appropriate statistical methods for the identification of ancestry in an easy-to-use computer program.

The MaMD will continue to grow and will require increased cooperation and data sharing among researchers in both forensic anthropology and more generally, among all biological anthropologists. Future efforts have great potential for producing more refined estimates of geographic origin, including among juveniles. The success of the MaMD and many of our projects across the department depend on research collaboration, data sharing, and standardized data collection strategies to make them successful.

MSU graduate students work on forensics in Thailand

Amber Plemons, Dr. Joe Hefner and Kelly Kamnikar collecting cranial data in Thailand