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A Snapshot into the Life of a Forensic Anthropologist

Thousands of students walk through the Quad toward the LSU Union each day, but not many of them take notice of the small building sitting beside the Howe-Russell-Kniffen Geoscience Complex. Housed inside this building is the LSU Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services, or FACES, Lab, home to the renowned "Bone Lady," Mary Manhein.

The LSU FACES Lab uses clay and computer modeling to create facial reconstructions based on the study of human remains, performs age-progression for the FBI, and conducts training seminars for law enforcement personnel.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

With television shows like "CSI," "Cold Case," "NCIS," and even "Law & Order," the field of forensic anthropology has been glamorized, and investigators are portrayed as larger-than-life figures.

LSU Media Relations decided to sit down with Manhein to get the truth about the life of her and her team of six women, who are responsible for assisting law enforcement with every undefined person case in the state. According to Louisiana law, any unidentified person found in the state must be sent to the FACES Lab, because just like Gil Grissom and his team on "CSI," they are the best.

Here's a snapshot into the life of a forensic anthropologist:

How did you get into forensic anthropology?

Mary Manhein: I took a course in anthropology as a senior at LSU. I was an English major. I was going to teach English to high school students and absolutely fell in love with anthropology. I started graduate school and volunteered in the lab to the point where I was volunteering 20 hours a week, for no pay, which didn't matter at the time, but I absolutely fell in love with it and that's how it all started. I knew I had to do that.

When/how did you get the nickname, The Bone Lady?

MM: Once we started working in the lab, after my mentor left, they would call up looking for me; law enforcement would call the main office. We're in the Department of Geography & Anthropology, and they'd call the main office and say 'Is that bone lady in the department? Is she here at LSU? Can you get the bone lady for me?' So it became my moniker, my nickname, so that's why I named my first book 'The Bone Lady,' and I'm recognized as The Bone Lady.

Speaking of your books, you're the author of two books on forensic anthropology, "The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist" and "Trail of Bones: More Cases from the Files of a Forensic Anthropologist." What made you decide to write those books, and can we expect any more in the future?

MM: Because I was in creative writing in the English program in undergraduate school, I just love to write. I love to tell stories, and I teach by telling stories. So I thought that it'd be fun to share my stories with others, so I presented my ideas to the LSU Press for 'The Bone Lady' book, and they liked it a lot and they took it. And then, I did another one with them, the 'Trail of Bones.' Both of those are actual case studies, so they're stories about cases that I have done or I have worked on over the years, and they've been very successful, I think, certainly successful for me.

I have two other books in the works right now I'm very excited about: another non-fiction with LSU Press – I have a contract with them – and the working title of that is 'When Only Bone Remains,' and then my other book that I'm working on, for which I have a tentative agreement with a publisher, is my first novel. It's called 'Floating Souls: The Canal Murders,' and so I'm very excited about that because you can just make things up. It's a fun, easy read, a brief book. I don't write long books. I like to read short books, so I feel like I can say what I want to say in short books. I'm very excited about those books.

Mary Manhein currently teaches graduate-level forensic anthropology, but starting this spring, there will be an undergraduate course offered as an elective through the Department of Geography & Anthropology.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

The LSU FACES Lab is the go-to place for law enforcement when there's an unidentified person case. What has led the FACES Lab to be so successful in helping solve many of these cases over the years?

MM: I think it's really just because we're just so determined. We're determined to do it, and the staff that I have are wonderful. They're just amazing. We're very tenacious, and I've never taken 'no' for an answer. I see a 'no' as a 'maybe' and a 'maybe' as an absolute 'yes,' and sometimes it gets me in trouble. I'm just one determined person and so are the women with whom I work. We work very, very diligently to try to solve these cases, so I think that's one of the reasons we've been so successful. Plus, they're very talented. We use every tool that we can think of to try to put these cases before the public to try to do the correct profile, you know: age, sex, ancestry, time since death … every one of those variables plays such a major role, so we work so diligently to get it right. We're not always right, but we're right most of the time.

The FACES Lab works with the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab to maintain the LA Repository for Missing and Unidentified Persons, http://identifyla.lsu.edu. How is this database being used and has it been successful?

MM: First of all, it's available to anyone. People can look at it all across the country. They can go online. They can call us. They can email us, 'This looks like so-and-so …'

In addition to that, groups such as the Doe Network (http://www.doenetwork.org/) and other groups are uploading our information into their databases. So, multiple databases pick up on ours and put it into their databases, so you just have this network of databases across the country, and then people can contact us and say well, 'This case looks like so-and-so …' Then what we'll do is compare our case to that case. Many times, we have dental records or whatever from both of them, and we're able to say, 'Well, no we are going to eliminate this person or not eliminate that person or maybe we need to look into this further.' That's been a very successful tool.

Can you talk about a typical day around the FACES Lab? I understand you and your staff are always on call and can be ready to leave on a case at a moment's notice.

MM: That's true. I get calls late at night sometimes. I get calls on Saturdays. I always hate for the phone to ring on Saturday. Unfortunately, most of these law enforcement agencies have my cell phone, which I want them to have it, but when I don't recognize the number on the phone, I go, 'Oh no, I'm in the grocery store,' and it's not unusual for that to happen.

Mary Manhein has more than 27 years experience as a forensic anthropologist and has handled more than 1,000 forensic cases around the country.
Eddy Perez/University Relations

Let me give you our typical yesterday [Oct. 11]: We had a case that came in the day before yesterday. It came in late in the day, so I collected everybody and said, 'This is what we're going to do.' First of all, when a case like that comes in, we'll take it, we'll x-ray the body. We'll open the bag, see what's in there. We'll take notes on it and that's what we're doing right now. There are people over there [in the lab] working right now on a case. So the typical day would include consulting with law enforcement agencies or agents from the parish or jurisdiction wherever this came from, going back and forth. Are there dental records? Do you know who this person might be? Looking for trauma … so that's going to go on all day long. And it did all day long yesterday. They're still working on a case today.

It also might include people requesting interviews, people wanting to know about cold cases because a case is never closed until it's identified or adjudicated, or both. So I'll get calls from all across the country, asking 'could this be this person?' And Helen [Bouzon, forensic anthropologist/research associate] will call me, she'll consult with them. Nicole [Harris, forensic anthropologist/research associate] will get them, Maria [Allaire, forensic anthropologist/research associate] will get them, so we're constantly talking about these cases, while several of us are also teaching. Three of us in the lab teach, so today I teach for three hours. Ginny Listi [forensic anthropologist], my right hand who's been with us so many years, is teaching, Nicole is teaching. So in between all that, we're teaching classes. We're doing research on all kinds of different things.

Our day is very full. I'm very tired when I go home in the afternoon, but then there's still the anticipation that we might get a call. We have been all over this state and many other areas. We've been in every situation you can imagine: on top of burning buildings, down in the bayous, along the river, you name it.

You mentioned teaching. You're currently teaching graduate-level forensic anthropology, but starting this spring, there will be an undergraduate course offered (Anthropology 2014 – Introduction to Forensic Anthropology). Can you tell us about that course? What can students expect when they take it?

MM: I'm so excited about that class. I've been wanting to do that for years and so I got it pushed through the summer and early fall and so it got on the books. It's called Anthropology 2014, and it's an introduction to forensic anthropology. What we'll be doing is getting rid of a lot of the myths and talking about the fun things but also the serious things about forensic anthropology. We'll talk about the things that are on television and all that so it's open to everyone at the 2000 level. There are no prerequisites. We're very excited so I'm hoping that a lot of students get excited about it also. It'll be Monday-Wednesday-Friday in the spring from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m.

About the LSU FACES Lab:

The FACES Lab is part of the Department of Geography & Anthropology in the LSU College of Humanities & Social Sciences. The lab utilizes technology to create computerized age-progression of unidentified or missing children and adults years after they disappear. Federal and state law enforcement investigators have come to rely on FACES director and anthropologist Mary Manhein and her staff as a valuable resource in their efforts to locate missing people. The lab uses clay and computer modeling to create facial reconstructions based on the study of human remains, performs age-progression for the FBI, and conducts training seminars for law enforcement personnel.

Manhein holds a master's degree in anthropology and has more than 27 years experience as a forensic anthropologist. In addition to being the director of the FACES Lab, she is director of the Louisiana Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons Information Program, and professional in residence at LSU. Manhein, a Fellow in the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, has handled more than 1,000 forensic cases and is called on by law enforcement agencies all over the United States.