Ben Thompson, a senior from Roanoke majoring in anthropological science, presented a research project co-authored with Eminent Professor of Anthropology Donna Boyd at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) Annual Scientific Meeting in Seattle, Wash., Feb. 17-22.
Titled "A Comparison of the Metric and Non-metric Techniques Used in the Classification of Hispanic Crania," the presentation addressed a topic of urgency to the forensic community and beyond.
"Thousands of families need to know what happened to their loved ones," said Boyd, co-director of the Radford University Forensic Science Institute (RUFSI).
Unlike racial crania which have marked physical differences for which forensic anthropologists have good reference data, Hispanic crania reflect a language group. The need for reference data to mark and identify them is pressing, according to Boyd, given the tragic endings of undocumented aliens whose remains are often found in the deserts along the United States-Mexico border.
Thompson and Boyd's research was presented Thursday and on Friday, the AAFS, an 6,600-member organization that includes physicians, attorneys, dentists, toxicologists, physical anthropologists, document examiners, psychiatrists, physicists, engineers, criminalists, educators and digital evidence experts from the U.S., Canada and 66 other countries worldwide, featured a symposium devoted to the issue.
For the study, Boyd and Thompson independently used metric and non-metric techniques in a blind study of 50 assorted skulls from the collection of the University of Tennessee to evaluate the standards currently used by the forensic science community to help identify skulls. Both found that non-metric analysis, based on experience and intuition, was more accurate than the strictly metric approach of 24 standard measurements in correctly identifying the Hispanic crania from the sample set they analyzed.
Thompson, who is the first RUFSI intern and aspires to graduate study in forensic anthropology, called the presentation the peak of a rich Radford University undergraduate experience.
"I have had a lot of valuable hands-on opportunities," he said. "I have made a poster presentation to a prestigious professional association, done original collaborative research, worked in the medical examiner's office, been a teaching assistant, tutored and supervised lab hours."
As a poster presenter at the annual scientific gathering of the international organization that provides leadership to advance science and its application to the legal system, Thompson had to articulate and defend the project and methodology before graduate students, professionals and AAFS Fellows during a three-hour period in the meeting's physical anthropology research section.
"Ben was an active participant in science, a dynamic process that continually updates itself, is exciting and living" said Boyd. "Science is a creative process that challenges us to face problems that are exposed and find ways around them."
As a high school senior who knew he wanted to be a forensic scientist, Thompson emailed Boyd with a simple question: "Why should I come to RU?"
Now, as a senior looking excitedly ahead, he reflected on what he has found, saying, "the department has been fully invested in my work and has shown great faith in me.'