Jen Vollner: Graduate Research in Bioarchaeology and Forensics

Jen Vollner majored in biology while she was an undergraduate, and she had interests anatomy, evolution and genetics. Her college had no anthropology department, so it wasn’t until she was accepted into graduate school at Mercyhurst College that she took her first anthropology course. Spending two years in Erie, PA at Mercyhurst helped prepare her academically for the transition into Michigan State’s Ph.D. program.

While at Michigan State University, Jen (at left below) has been fortunate to work in the Forensic Anthropology Lab directed first by Dr. Norm Sauer and currently by Dr. Todd Fenton. The lab not only works closely with local medical examiners and law enforcement to assist in medicolegal cases, but also takes part in several outreach activities, such as law enforcement training, lectures to the public, and activities for local school children. These experiences have provided her invaluable on-the-job training and led to several research collaborations.

Jen has had the opportunity to travel to southern Italy to assist in osteological investigations of skeletal remains excavated from medieval rural cemeteries under the mentorship of Dr. Fenton and Dr. Paul Arthur. Using the methods she learned abroad and at the forensic lab at Michigan State, she was able to hone her skills in the identification of human remains. Portions of this study have been presented at MSU’s Graduate Academic Conference and at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and Paleopathology Association meetings throughout the past few years.


Jen Vollner (on left), Photo by J. Vollner, used with permission

She currently works for Dr. Fenton on his National Institute of Justice funded grant, “Pediatric Fracture Printing: Creating a Science of Statistical Fracture Signature Analysis,” which proposes best practice in the interpretation of pediatric cranial fractures. This is a multi-faceted project involving physical anthropologists, biomechanical engineers, and computer science engineers. Initial results from the pattern recognition software applied to the porcine model used in this project are quite exciting and promising. Several papers and posters focused on this project have recently been presented at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting and the National Institute of Justice sponsored symposium.

 Jen’s dissertation research will center on a craniometric analysis of a medieval Christian Nubian population excavated from a site near the Fourth Cataract of the Nile. This sample will be compared with other already excavated populations from the same time period from further up and down the Nile. She will attempt to understand the amount of cranial variation within each cemetery population and between these populations to examine the concept of identity and ethnicity.

“The four-field approach at Michigan State has made me a well-rounded anthropologist,” says Jen. She believes that the experiences she has had thus far in her academic career have prepared her to confidently venture out from the walls of Michigan State when the time comes.

[Included in the Spring 2014 Dept. of Anthropology Newsletter, see complete newsletter here]