Dr. Carolyn Isaac, Forensic Anthropologist of the MSUFAL

Photo of Dr. Carolyn Isaac

Assistant Professor Carolyn Isaac joined the Department of Anthropology in Fall 2019 and is one of the three acclaimed forensic anthropologists of the Michigan State University Forensic Anthropology Laboratory (MSUFAL) with Dr. Todd Fenton and Dr. Joseph Hefner. Dr. Isaac is the Director of the MSUFAL and oversees the lab’s operations and involvement with forensic casework. While Dr. Isaac recently joined us, she is an MSU alumna whose roots with the lab extend to her time as a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology.

After earning her PhD in 2013, Dr. Isaac was a forensic anthropologist and Assistant Professor for the Department of Pathology, Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine, and Medical Examiner’s Office for twelve Michigan counties. As the forensic anthropologists for the ME’s Office, Dr. Isaac and MSU alumnus Dr. Jered Cornelison were responsible for all skeletal analyses, identifications, infant skeletal surveys, and mass fatality planning. During her tenure there, Dr. Isaac was involved in numerous and varied casework, and worked on over 300 forensic anthropology cases.

On being Director of the MSUFAL, Dr. Isaac says that it feels like a full-circle experience: “As a graduate student, the MSUFAL is where Dr. Fenton taught me how to be a forensic anthropologist and gave me the invaluable case experience. Although I have very big shoes to fill, I am looking forward to giving back to this lab and all of the amazing people that make it the best job in the world.” The people, past and present, who have graced this laboratory are what Dr. Isaac says comprise the best of the MSUFAL.

Dr. Isaac and Dr. Cornelison on a forensic case searching the forest floor
Dr. Isaac (right) and Dr. Cornelison (left) on a forensic case

Dr. Isaac’s research seeks to create a method for estimating the age of skeletal injuries, beginning with the cranium. To do this, Dr. Isaac and her research team have collected samples of cranial injuries from medical examiner cases and body donations. These samples are thin sectioned, stained, and mounted on slides. These slides are then used to evaluate the cells and tissues involved in the fracture healing process. By understanding this progression, Dr. Isaac and her team hope to establish stages of cranial fracture healing with diagnostic histologic features that can be used to estimate the age of the injury. Such estimations can aid in determining whether an injury contributed to death, whether there are multiple injuries or various ages indicating a pattern of abuse, and may contribute to the manner of death classification. Dr. Isaac and her research team were awarded a National Institute of Justice Grant for this critical research.

In the work to establish standards and best practices in the discipline, Dr. Isaac is a Member of the Anthropology Consensus Body of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Standards Board. She is the Chair of the working group on standards for personal identification and is a member of the working group on standards for analyzing skeletal trauma. Dr. Isaac is also an active and leading member of the Michigan Mortuary Response Team (MIMORT). During her time at Western Michigan, she helped craft the Mass Fatality Plan for the Medical Examiner’s Office and became a liaison to the counties and the region for mass fatality preparations and trainings, including helping to organize MIMORT and regional Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) exercises.

The Department is delighted to have Dr. Isaac with us, and we look forward to her work ahead.

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