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Half-million-dollar grant reunites three forensics grads

Friday, December 11, 2015

Mercyhurst University forensic anthropology graduate Dr. Kyra Stull (pictured at right) knew when she left Mercyhurst in 2008, it was strictly geography. The education she had received, the exposure to renowned faculty, the real cases she investigated and the friendships she made would travel with her, including to South Africa, where she earned her doctorate at the University of Pretoria.

So when she reeled in a half-million-dollar grant at Idaho State University, where she is a new faculty member in the anthropology department, it wasn’t surprising to see that holding the line with her were co-principal investigators Dr. Heather Garvin and Dr. Alexandra Klales, current faculty with the Mercyhurst Department of Applied Forensic Sciences. The three ladies were classmates in Mercyhurst’s master’s program in forensic anthropology, with Garvin starting in 2005; Stull in 2006; and Klales in 2007. They have remained friends and colleagues ever since.

The grant money, $510,409 from the National Institute of Justice, will be used to develop new techniques for estimating age and sex in the under-25 age group.* Mercyhurst will receive $123,000 in year one of the grant and $56,000 in the second year. It will pay for a research assistant, who will work out of Mercyhurst and travel to different sites for data collection, as well as equipment and software needed for data analyses at Mercyhurst. Garvin (pictured below right) and Klales (pictured below left) will oversee the work at Mercyhurst, while Stull guides the overall project, which begins Jan 1.

Dr. Heather Garvin

Most of techniques we have for forensic anthropologists to use in identifying remains are oriented toward adults; techniques for identifying kids are virtually nonexistent,” said Stull, who hopes her research can decrease the number of children, in particular, on missing persons lists and bring closure to families.

The plan is to analyze thousands of CT scans of human remains from medical examiners' offices to analyze growth and development markers in children and create a database that can be used by forensic scientists in identifying remains from the “sub-adult” age group.

Stull said her interest in this particular field of research grew out of a course she took at Mercyhurst on growth and development taught by associate professor of anthropology Dr. Stephen Ousley, combined with the forensic anthropological cases she worked on and an internship at the Buffalo Medical Examiner’s Office, where she saw firsthand the absence of identification data on sub-adults.

“All of those things could only happen at Mercyhurst because of the abundance of cases you get to work on as a student and the really great faculty you get to work with,” Stull said.

It didn’t hurt that she made lasting friendships at Mercyhurst and established talented professional contacts. Garvin, for instance, was on the international team of forensic scientists to discover a new species of human – Homo naledi – earlier this year in South Africa. Klales just secured her own research grant from the NIJ - $126,871 – to develop an interactive morphological database for estimating sex in modern adults.*

Dr. Alexandra Klales

"This grant is a great opportunity for each of us to contribute our specific specialties within forensic anthropology to a project that will hopefully have a lasting impact on the discipline and on the methods we use for identifying sub-adults in forensic contexts,” Klales said.

"This grant also provides a great opportunity for students to gain research experience," Garvin said. "We expect that the data collected from this grant will contribute to multiple graduate and undergraduate student theses."

Stull, meanwhile, is also working on a research project with Dr. Steven Symes, associate professor of anthropology at Mercyhurst; another Mercyhurst master’s degree graduate in forensics, Dr. Michael Kenyhercz, University of Tennessee, Knoxville; and Dr. Ericka L’Abbé of the University of Pretoria. They are exploring key characteristics associated with blunt and ballistic trauma; the National Research Foundation (NRF) in South Africa funds the project.

 

2016-2018 Development of modern subadult standards: improved age and sex estimation in U.S. forensic practice. Funding agency: National Institute of Justice (2015-DN-BX-K009). Funds awarded (09/17/2015): $510,409. Principal Investigator: Kyra Stull; Co-Principal Investigators: Heather M. Garvin and Alexandra R. Klales

2016-2018    An interactive morphological database for estimating sex in modern adults. Funding agency: National Institute of Justice (2015-DN-BX-K014). Funds awarded (09/16/2015): $126,871. Principal Investigator: Alexandra R. Klales