Mercyhurst unveils new anatomy, forensic anthropology lab

Mercyhurst College today unveils the new Hirtzel Human Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology Laboratory, a $1.2 million mega-lab at North East that will provide an unprecedented learning opportunity for the college’s science and nursing students while taking its place among the best-equipped and staffed forensic labs in the country.

More than 100 guests, including area law enforcement, government leaders, medical and legal professionals, representatives of local educational institutions and a number of scientists from across the northeast United States are expected to attend the 3:30 p.m. festivities. Mercyhurst President Dr. Thomas J. Gamble and Provost Dr. James Adovasio will address the group before opening the lab for tours.

Besides the dedicated space for forensics, the high-tech facility houses a cadaver lab, a standard feature for medical schools but relatively uncommon at small private colleges.

The Hirtzel lab supports Mercyhurst’s landmark undergraduate and graduate programs in forensic anthropology, while creating a secure facility for the processing and analysis of human remains from forensic cases throughout North America.

In addition, it enhances other disciplines focused on human anatomy, including the college’s popular biology and sportsmedicine programs. It also benefits the allied health and nursing programs at Mercyhurst North East, one of the few schools to offer its nursing students access to a cadaver lab.

The laboratory takes its name from the Orris C. and Beatrice Dewey Hirtzel Memorial Foundation, a longtime Mercyhurst benefactor that contributed $1 million toward its construction.

“This strategic investment in the sciences equips our students with the advanced technology and hands-on learning they need to be successful in their pursuit of graduate school and the job market after graduation, not to mention provides a state-of-the-art laboratory unsurpassed in the region,” Dr. Gamble said. 

The 4,672 square foot multi-purpose science lab is situated on the first floor of the Janet L. Miller Center for Growth and Academic Excellence in North East, formerly the First National Bank building on Route 89, immediately north of the North East I-90 exit. The building currently houses the college’s Public Safety Institute, Municipal Police Training Academy and licensed practical nursing program. 

The Hirtzel lab offers many advanced features, among them a room for processing human remains that is consistent with modern autopsy facilities, a digital x-ray system, a combination anatomy lab and classroom equipped with stations for cadaver dissection, a “green” energy recovery and air ventilation system and a high-tech security system. 

With Mercyhurst home to Pennsylvania’s only two board-certified forensic anthropologists, Dr. Dennis Dirkmaat and Dr. Steven Symes, the college’s forensic anthropology program has grown both in popularity and prominence. Together, Dirkmaat and Symes have 50 years of forensic practice spanning more than 1,000 cases. Since 2003, they have averaged 100 cases a year from around the country, many used as teaching opportunities for students.

“This full-service forensic lab provides us with a central location from which to process evidence from crime scenes, alleviating the fragmented space issues of our current facility and placing a priority on security,” said Dirkmaat, director of the applied forensic sciences department. 

Meanwhile, the college’s forensic anthropology students, along with biology, sportsmedicine and nursing students all will benefit from the cadaver lab. It will contain anatomical models, skeletal materials and human cadavers obtained through the Pennsylvania Humanity Gifts Registry program, affording students an understanding of the gross three-dimensional relationships and interrelationships of the structures that give the human body form and function, according to Dr. David Hyland, biology department chair.

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