UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center (FAC) received two grants totaling more than $580,000 from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research, development, and evaluation agency of the US Department of Justice. A longtime grantee across numerous forensics research topics, the College of Arts and Sciences research center—which includes the Anthropological Research Facility, also known as the Body Farm—is known worldwide for its research and training.
The grants, announced during a campus visit and research presentation by the NIJ on December 4, support the work of multiple College of Arts and Science faculty members working across disciplines on two new research projects. The first will help law enforcement locate clandestine graves, and the second will help inform how relic DNA in the soil affects forensic investigations.
“The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is a beacon for the field of forensic science research,” said NIJ Director Nancy La Vigne. “Since 2007, NIJ has awarded 26 forensic science research grants to the university, totaling over $6.9 million. I am pleased to announce that NIJ has made two new research awards to the university that will develop essential knowledge that can inform the identification of decedents—information that will ultimately guide investigations, help solve cold cases, support prosecutions, and bring justice to victims and their families.”
The award recognition is the latest example of how the FAC has helped promote forensic science for the betterment of the state, the region, and the world.
“The FAC exemplifies our faculty’s interdisciplinary work that helps make life and lives better, especially in bringing closure and justice for those who have lost loved ones through tragic events,” said College of Arts and Sciences Interim Executive Dean Robert Hinde. “These grants, and the FAC’s long history of external funding, reflect the value of this work.”
Research leaders across the college and university echoed Hinde’s thoughts.
“The FAC is renowned for research excellence—it has long been a leader in the field,” said Michael Blum, the college’s associate dean for research and creative activity. “The NIJ awards will support its core mission to pursue innovative groundbreaking advances, mindful of the need to put research into practice.”
These advances include scientific research projects that will help identify the remains of people who fell victim to crime or perished due to international conflict, bringing their families a sense of closure.
“For more than three decades, the FAC has generated critical breakthroughs and improvements in forensics research and operations, solidifying its role in helping law enforcement cases and giving families closure,” said Deborah Crawford, UT’s vice chancellor for research, innovation, and economic development. “Researchers at the FAC are harnessing the tools of cutting-edge science to address critical forensics challenges—showcasing the creativity and impact of UT Research and exemplifying the Volunteer spirit of service and leadership.”
$351,078 Awarded for ‘Evaluating the Reliability and Accuracy of Multiple Geophysical Methods in the Search for Clandestine Graves’
For the project involving the search for hidden burials, the FAC team will use three different methods of locating graves—ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic conductivity and magnetometry—under a variety of conditions, including variations in terrain.
Their ultimate goal is to provide NIJ with hard data showing which methods are most accurate in a given set of circumstances.
They will also keep track of the time required to set up and break down equipment and conduct an analysis of costs associated with each detection approach so individual law enforcement agencies can take those factors into account when planning and conducting a search.
Department of Anthropology faculty members engaged in this work include Research Associate Mary Davis and Research Associate Professor Giovanna Vidoli as principal investigators, with Distinguished Lecturer Joanne Devlin and Associate Professor Amy Mundorff serving as investigators.
$229,454 Awarded for ‘Impact of Relic DNA on Forensic Microbiome Applications in Criminal Investigations’
Microbes are useful to investigators in numerous ways, from helping determine the time of death to potentially linking back to a suspect or location if a crime has been committed. The potential exists, however, for a false reading or misunderstanding of the data due to relic DNA that should not have been associated with the burial, and our understanding of such DNA and how it affects forensic investigations is very incomplete.
Using tools such as postmortem interval estimation and trace evidence analysis, the FAC is working both to gain a better understanding of the effects of relic DNA and to make recommendations to forensic agencies on best practices surrounding microbes and relic DNA.
Department of Microbiology Research Assistant Professor Zach Burcham and Alison Buchan, Carolyn W. Fite Professor and associate head for the Department of Microbiology, are serving as principal investigators with Vidoli as an investigator.
Further Connections to NIJ Projects
Mundorff is part of a third NIJ-funded project, which is being led by Bode Technology: “Evaluation of Target Enrichment for SNP Genotyping of Skeletal Remains.” With funding of $659,287, the project is working to improve, enhance, and outline best practices for using genotyping when working with skeletal remains.
“There are well-established, validated, practices for single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP) genotyping from recently deceased, fully fleshed human remains. This project seeks to validate these procedures to achieve similar results from skeletonized remains,” said Mundorff, whose research specializes in human identification from skeletonized remains and developing new methodologies for locating clandestine graves.
Mundorff has built a strong history of working with the NIJ, with seven awards — four of them with Bode — dating back to 2010.
The well-earned support for these projects helps College of Arts and Science faculty members merge skills across disciplines to shine new light with their investigations, putting the Volunteer Spirit into real-world practice at home and around the world.