You know you have made an interesting life choice when you are known as “Dead Body Becky” to many of your friends. Otherwise known as Rebecca Wilson ’01, a doctoral candidate at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the tall, soft-spoken researcher also is assistant coordinator for Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center—which also is better known by a macabre nickname: The Body Farm.
The Body Farm, which has been fodder for detective novels by Patricia Cornwell and in television shows such as CSI, The Dead Zone and Law and Order: SVU, is a scientific facility in which scientists observe and research how bodies decompose in a variety of environments. The Tennessee facility is a three-acre fenced-off compound near the university campus filled with cadavers in varying conditions—of dress, temperature, location—and in environments ranging from car trunks to ponds.
Rebecca, early in her college days, became fascinated with how remnants of our past, including the bones of our ancestors or the bones of a recent murder victim, can give contemporary scientists a window into what life was like a century ago or when a person had died. She studied biology and anthropology at Juniata, and, encouraged by anthropologist Paula Wagoner, headed off to graduate work at Tennessee to explore the lives and deaths of others.
Today, the accomplished researcher is trying to write her dissertation between assignments that can have her conferring with the producers of CSI one day, and talking to a person interested in donating his or her body to the facility the next. She is a permanent employee of the forensic center and one way to describe her job is that she knows where the bodies are buried (or unburied).
She has four main duties: overseeing the day-to-day activities of the center, assigning graduate students a cadaver and overseeing their individual projects, coordinating the center’s body donation program, and acting as public relations liaison with media and entertainment shows.
“I’ve done everything from The Montel Williams Show to a radio interview with the BBC,” says Wilson, who can currently be seen giving a 25-minute tour of the Body Farm on a special feature for the CSI: NY: Season 3 DVD collection. She also was interviewed recently for the television shows Taboo, on the National Geographic Channel, and The History Channel’s Boneyard. The Hollywood aspect of her job is not as demanding as a TV watcher might think.
“They really only call us if they have a really difficult scenario they want to check,” she says. “Our facility is not like television. No one has a holograph machine (capable of reconstructing a face from a skull) and we don’t have all-stainless steel labs where you push a button and a skeleton pops out of a drawer.”
Show business aside, Rebecca finds more satisfaction in managing the facility’s donor program, which in the past two years has doubled in size. In 2000, the center averaged 40 to 50 donations per year. In 2006 and 2007, Rebecca arranged more than 107 donations each year. Acting as both scientist and sort of as a funeral director, Rebecca often deals directly with the person donating his or her body. The center cannot take a body with an infectious disease and the body cannot be embalmed or autopsied.
“We do try to accommodate special requests and many of our donors get specific,” she explains. “I get requests like, ‘I don’t want to be buried.’ ‘I want to be facing east.’ or ‘I want to be clothed.’” The Body Farm does not mind donations by those with unique body types. She has overseen donations by a person who weighed 630 pounds and another who weighed 92 pounds. “I usually oversee placement and I always talk to the family to let them know the body was handled with respect,” she says.
She also says the potential donors are getting younger, making the decision to contact the facility at age 20 to 30. Typically, Rebecca handles donations by people in the 40-to-60 age range.
Rebecca also coordinates field investigations for the unit. Unlike the forensic anthropologists in the Fox drama Bones, she doesn’t jet all over the country solving exotic murders. If a law enforcement agency outside of Tennessee calls them, the center refers the officials to the nearest forensic anthropologist in their area. All of Rebecca’s field excursions have largely been in Tennessee, but she has consulted on local cases involving dismemberment, a murdered criminal informant dumped in a field, and a murder where the body was folded, placed in a garbage can and buried.
Rebecca also gets many calls on grave-robbing incidents because Tennessee has many still-undiscovered Native American burial sites. Her team was called in on one incident where a group of teenagers had found a site containing multiple skeletons. The perpetrators were selling skulls and other bones on e-Bay.
Rebecca’s own research focuses on Native American burials. The University of Tennessee has an extensive Native American skeletal collection, created when the Tennessee Valley Authority built dams and flood-control projects in the 1930s and 1940s that displaced Native American gravesites.
She has made a detailed examination of the university’s collection, in collaboration with representatives of local tribes, to determine if the area’s Indian population was healthier than previously believed. When she finishes her dissertation, she’s going to be on the job market. She’d like a teaching position that allows her to consult on forensic cases. Until then, at least to her old friends, she’ll be “Dead Body Becky.” “I’ve been going to a lot of weddings lately and they always seem to seat me with doctors and EMTs,” she says ruefully.
1 Comment on "Among the Dead: Detecting a Career in Forensic Anthropology" »
August 4, 2008 at 2:17 pm Yes, my hands are full. » Dead body Becky pingbacked: