Read our COVID-19 research and news.

I Have Gazed on the Face of Death


I have gazed on the face of death innumerable times, witnessed it in all its grim manifestations. Death has no power to freeze my heart, jangle my nerves, or sway my reason. Death to me is no terror of the night, but a daylight companion, a familiar condition, a process obedient to scientific laws and answerable to scientific inquiry. (Maples and Browning, 1994: 2)

The macabre nature of the forensic anthropologist's work has made for interesting story lines for popular television shows like CSI, Crossing Jordan, Quincy, and the X-Files. These days, forensic anthropologists are also the subjects of documentary interviews on a variety of television networks, including The Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel and A&E. Many of our colleagues have also become successful fiction and nonfiction writers (for good reading, see Reichs, 1997; Rhine, 1997; Maples and Browning, 1994, from which the above quote comes; and Ubelaker and Scammell, 1992).

This publicity has sparked an interest in many young scientists who are fascinated by forensic anthropology as a possible career choice. Yet, many of these shows and books fail to recount the academic trappings associated with pursuing a degree in a field as small as forensic anthropology. More specifically, targeting and getting into a graduate program that offers practical experience or apprenticeships in forensic anthropology is difficult--and jobs for purely applied scientists are scarce.

So how did I embark on my academic journey in forensic anthropology (where am I now), and where will that journey take me?

My personal and professional interest in forensic anthropology was sparked when Professor William R. Maples lectured in my undergraduate physical anthropology class. Dr. Maples, an exciting speaker, spoke on the work he had performed to identify the remains of Francisco Pizarro and those of the last Russian Royal Family, as well as the skeletal trauma analysis he conducted to document the extent of the skeletal malformations of Joseph Merrick (a.k.a. "The Elephant Man"). He talked about how he had helped to solve several grizzly murders through the identification of tool marks on bone. And, more importantly, he discussed how he identified the victims themselves. Shortly after this lecture, I purchased a book entitled Dead Men Do Tell Tales--a comprehensive, autobiographical account of Dr. Maples's career.

I met with Dr. Maples after reading his book and told him that I knew that this was the career for me. He said that there were few jobs in forensic anthropology, especially in academia, and that if I intended to work for a medical examiner's office or police agency I would make little money and may not use the skills I had learned (and paid for) during my pursuit of an advanced degree. His admonitions, which I took seriously, did not discourage me. Rather, I interned at his forensic laboratory (the C. A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory) at the University of Florida, Gainesville. This apprenticeship of sorts gave me an opportunity to work closely with Dr. Maples, a Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (ABFA), who emphasized teaching above all and who also maintained the highest standards of personal and professional integrity. Although courses in anatomy, osteology, biomechanics, human evolution, primate behavior, and genetics have rounded out my education in biological anthropology, it is the one-on-one mentoring that I have received in Dr. Maples's laboratory that has given me the necessary technical skills and exposed me to scientists who both preach and practice professional ethics.

As of this writing, I am several weeks away from taking my Ph.D. qualifying exam and becoming a Ph.D. candidate. This will leave me facing just one small hurdle before earning my doctorate: completing my dissertation! During my apprenticeship, I have participated in numerous scene searches and recoveries and have conducted osteological analyses related to identification and trauma on many of the cases that come through the C. A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory. These experiences, however, coupled with completing my Ph.D., only provide a foundation for achieving the ultimate credential in this field: Diplomate of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. To reach this goal, I must intern in a laboratory for three additional years after earning my Ph.D. and hone my forensic anthropology skills before I can sit for the ABFA's Diplomate exam. The exam includes a long written component that covers federal and state laws regulating the handling of human remains (or "body laws") as well as a practicum involving the identification of bone fragments, determination of the age, sex, and ancestry from crania and pelves, and description of any evidence of trauma. In addition to preparing for the exam, I must conduct research, publish, and (hopefully) teach at an accredited university.

Although forensic anthropology may be perceived by many to be a "cool career," it is one that requires a heavy investment of time, intensive preparation, dedication, and eternal optimism. Not only is the academic path long and arduous, but the work itself can be physically and emotionally taxing. You'll spend long hours in the sun or rain, searching, digging, and mapping, which leaves your neck, back, shoulders, and knees sore for days. There is the also the very real risk of being exposed to Hepatitis B, HIV, or bacterial infections. And lastly, there are the visual and olfactory memories of scenes and victims that never disappear. Although some degree of professional aloofness is necessary in order to cope with the stress of experiencing devastating forensic scenes like that of the ValuJet crash in Florida or the post 11 September World Trade Center, it is impossible for a young forensic scientist to remain unaffected by the human tragedy attendant to these occurrences. I have no doubt that such experiences have fomented an emotional and professional metamorphosis in my life.

And I would not change a thing.


W. R. Maples and M. Browning, Dead Men Do Tell Tales (Doubleday, New York, 1994).

K. Reichs, Deja Dead (Scriber, New York, 1997).

S. Rhine, Bone Voyage: A Journey in Forensic Anthropology (University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1997).

D. Ubelaker and H. Scammell, Bones: A Forensic Detective's Casebook (M. Evans and Company Inc., New York, 1992).

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers