For the upcoming winter issue of NC State magazine, we talked to researchers across campus who are teaming up to advance work in the area of forensic science. From studying blow flies to mapping skulls to developing a database of fabric dyes, these scientists are using their specialized knowledge to help solve crimes.
But while we enjoyed talking with them about the very serious work they’re doing, we couldn’t resist asking them for their thoughts about the plethora of crime shows on television these days:
Wes Watson, professor of entomology: I used to watchCSI for entertainment. I really enjoy finding flaws in the biology. I remember one time they incorrectly ID’d a type of beetle on remains. (Watson uses the life cycle of the blow fly to estimate the time of death.)
Ann Ross,professor of anthropology: Bones? Can’t stand it. Too unrealistic. Law & Order, love it, all of them. I love those shows. You get the police work and the prosecution side in the courtroom, and it’s a nice marrying of the two. CSI—they always work in the dark. It bothers me. Turn some lights on, people! (Ross has developed computer software to help investigators determine the ethnic origin of skeletal remains.)
Billy Oliver, archeologist and teaching associate:Some are better than others. My wife loves Dexter. I watch CSI and Castle and things that involve a twist. CSI: New York is a little out there. (Oliver helps teach classes on how to excavate bodies and document evidence; he has been called on to help investigate numerous crimes.)
Tim Buie ’88 ’98 MS, assistant professor of industrial design: I hate some of the stuff. They’ll have a video from an ATM and they’ll enhance it. Suddenly it’s super high-res and you can read the guy’s driver’s license from 300 feet [something that couldn’t happen in real life]. (Buie and a colleague from the College of Engineering are developing a system to help investigators virtually recreate crime scenes in 3-D.)
Months after a county cleanup crew found a skeleton in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, forensic anthropologist Ann Ross and her students zeroed in on an incisor. It established what other investigators couldn’t: that the deceased was Elizabeth Smallwood, the sixth victim of the Edgecombe serial killer.
When new cases come in, students help Ross recover bones and collect data. Factors they consider include preservation, as in a frozen pond, or exposure to the sun, all of which can help establish time since death. The bulk of the student’s work — even the undergrads — is analyzing unidentified human remains to create what’s called a biological profile. To establish ancestry, they look at facial structure or map the skull using 3-D software that Ross co-created. “It’s the element of mystery that gets them,” Ross says of her students. “But I think it’s being the voice for those who can no longer defend themselves that keeps them.”
NC State magazine included Ross’ Introduction to Forensic Anthropology class among its list of the 20 most engaging courses taught at NC State in its Spring 2009 issue. The NCSU.edu homepage featured six of the classes from our “20 Reasons to go to Class” list last year. Check that out here.
The N&O has a fascinating story today about the N.C. Program for Forensic Sciences, which is run out of NC State and is featured in the above video. The bodies of six women have been found in rural Edgecombe County since 2005. Investigators, who suspect that the women might have been victims of a serial killer, hadn’t been able to identify one set of remains. They turned to the forensic sciences program for help. Here’s what happened:
It was a copy of a 2002 CAT scan that finally put a name, a face to the bones and mummified remains found eight months ago among the decaying leaves in a thicket of woods north of Rocky Mount, where six women have been murdered.
Elizabeth Jane Smallwood, 33, of Rocky Mount was no longer a lost person, thanks to a world renowned expert and a program at N.C. State University that is pioneering the use of forensic science in crime scene investigations. Using specialized computer software, forensic anthropologist Ann Ross was able to match the unique features of the weathered skull to Smallwood’s old CAT scan – a three-dimensional X-ray.
The program, writes The N&O, “has been called upon by the United States military to develop new technology that would find underground graves in Iraq. Back home, it has been called upon to assist in 60 homicide cases across the state.”
“I can’t tell you everything that we do,” said veteran archaeologist Billy Oliver, who co-directs the program with Ross. “But I can tell you that we are on the leading edge of the new technology.”