Interview with Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray, Author of “Death: Corpses, Cadavers, and Other Grave Matters”

By Domenica Di Piazza, Editorial Director, TFCB

image Twenty-First Century Books has just released Dr. Elizabeth Murray’s fascinating book about the science of death (cover at left). Dr. Murray is a professor of biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is also a forensic consultant, working with law enforcement to identify the remains of the dead. In the interview below, I asked Dr. Murray to talk a little about her career, how she trained for it, about the people who inspired and guided her, and what she loves about her work.

Please tell our readers about your teaching and forensic work.

I am, first and foremost, a professor of biology. My primary responsibilities include teaching human gross anatomy, vertebrate anatomy and physiology, and forensic science. Because there are so few full-time positions in anthropology, and almost none in the field of forensic anthropology, I teach for a living.

The forensic consulting that I have participated in since 1986 is applied research and also community service. My forensic work involves analyzing skeletal and badly decomposed remains in order to assist law enforcement in identifying unknown persons, interpreting traumatic injuries observed in human skeletal remains, and helping to estimate the time since death.

These two facets of my life–my teaching and forensic work–constantly remind me of the ways in which life and death intersect.

How did you decide to get into this line of work?

My undergraduate degree is in biology from the College of Mount St. Joseph where I now teach. During my years in college, I came to appreciate the human animal as the most interesting of all creatures I studied. For that reason, I decided to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology. It was only then that I learned of the forensic applications in that field.

I kind of stumbled upon forensic anthropology by accident. In fact, when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 1986, most members of the general public had never heard of forensic science. It was only because a professor at the University of Cincinnati, Dr. Tony Perzigian, had begun to explore the field of forensic anthropology in the Cincinnati area that I got involved in forensic science during graduate school.

With regard to my teaching, I saw it as a way to “never leave school” in terms of experiencing the excitement of discovery every day. In addition, having an academic schedule during the years my son was growing up was critical for me.

Who influenced, inspired, and supported you?

In terms of my inspiration, my interest in science comes from my father; he was an avid reader who often gave me books about science and encouraged all of my scientific pursuits in school. My dad was an engineer, with a love for learning and a really big heart–what a wonderful combination! My mother is a woman of great determination and strong will; I believe I got the necessary perseverance and independence to achieve my goals from her.

As a young girl, I could never decide “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” I bounced around from wanting to be a teacher, a writer, a scientist, a medical professional, an archaeologist, a legal practitioner, and other short-lived goals I’ve long since forgotten. Through lots of good fortune and many interesting turns in my career journey, my current positions allow me to combine aspects of all those fields.

However, my path to this point in my professional life was neither easy, nor traditional. I started my undergraduate experience as a single mother, slightly older than my peers in college. I really had intended upon pursuing a two-year degree in medical technology, so I could get a job to support my son and myself.

Once in college, studying so many things that interested me, I became almost addicted to learning and discussing new ideas with my teachers and peers. Several years into my college experience I met a professor who literally changed my life: Dr. Gene Kritsky, who is now my friend and colleague, recognized potential in me that I hardly knew existed, and encouraged me to pursue graduate school. Without his support, and that of my extended family and wonderful son, I would not be where I am today.

What kind of classes and degrees did you take?

My undergraduate degree is in biology, but I also studied 2-1/2 years of chemistry. My biology courses included many standard classes, such as anatomy, evolution, genetics, zoology, ecology, and many others.

When I went on to pursue my graduate studies in anthropology, I specialized in physical anthropology and my background in biology was very helpful in this regard. Although I knew little about cultural anthropology and archaeology when I began graduate school, I was very well-versed on human biology and how we interact with our environment.

Physical anthropologists study human biology, the skeleton, and what we know about our past by studying the remains of our ancestors. In deciding on my doctoral studies, I majored in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in human biology. My graduate school did not have a doctoral program in anthropology, but my emphasis in human biology has allowed me more flexibility in my teaching than a PhD in anthropology might afford.

My interdisciplinary doctoral program integrated the areas of anthropology, anatomy, and biology. Together, those three disciplines, have prepared me well, not only for my biology teaching, but also for my forensic work.

Are there many women in the field and how has that changed over time?

It might surprise most readers to learn that there are quite a few female forensic anthropologists. Although most of the original pioneers in forensic science were men, there were women in the early days of physical anthropology who saw the value of studying the skeleton to assist law enforcement and, in particular, the military.

Perhaps due to its very broad nature, anthropology has always attracted females in both teaching and research. Many of my close colleagues and friends in the field are women. In my opinion, it was not within the field of anthropology that women may have experienced difficulties being accepted, but I am sure it was difficult for the female pioneers in forensic anthropology to be accepted by some members of law enforcement in the past. With the rise in the numbers of women in forensic science and law enforcement, I see little evidence today that women are not being treated equally in these fields.

Is your forensic work anything like CSI?

I have to be honest. I’ve seen CSI only once in my life. I don’t watch a lot of television, but some of my colleagues indicate their frustration with shows like CSI. They say it is not very realistic; real forensic scientists don’t get DNA results back after a commercial break, nor does an anthropologist interview witnesses or family members.

In my forensic work, I go to the scene and/or the morgue, report my scientific findings, and then move onto something else. In fact, I believe it is important to my sanity that I not pursue the resolution of these cases to the “ends of the earth” the way these television shows portray us doing. By nature, forensic science involves many specialists, each performing his or her specific function in a case. Because we each have our own contribution, it helps insulate us all from the overwhelming tragedies of looking at the big picture in any forensic case.

I believe the true heroes are our law enforcement investigators. They are the individuals who must take the scientific evidence and work within the community towards the resolution of cases. Forensic scientists are not superheroes; we simply contribute our particular skill and expertise to an ongoing investigation.

What do you love about your work?

I love teaching. I believe I have a knack for taking complex scientific issues and making them more easily understood. It is so rewarding to see a student “light up” with understanding, and realize that you have just given them something they did not own before. I know it may sound trite, but I truly believe that teaching is a type of immortality. I take information from the past and present, and move it into the future. Whether my students go on to careers in healthcare, biological research, or forensic science, I know that in all of those endeavors, in some small way, I am present.

My teaching and the positive benefits I get from it help to counteract some of the tragedy I encounter in my forensic work. When dealing with the dead, there are no happy endings, there are just endings. Although my forensic contributions benefit society and aid in helping to see that justice is served, so much of what I experience in forensic settings is very sad. Although I always try to ensure that my personal feelings do not affect my scientific objectivity, the day-to-day reality of what human beings can do to one another and how some people suffer is something with which it is difficult to deal.

There are many positive aspects inherent in forensic science, of course. Each case is a puzzle, with many small pieces that must be put together in order to arrive at an eventual conclusion. I have always loved a mystery, and forensic science is certainly filled with intrigue!

Look for more from Dr. Murray in an upcoming entry about her experience writing the Death book. In the meantime, check back next week for more from TFCB!

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