Melissa Connor at her desk
Melissa Connor, PhD, at home in her CMU office.


Dr. Bones: Getting to know CMU's Forensic Anthropologist

It seems like every week there is a new CSI: something or Forensic Files popping up in the TV guide, but Melissa Connor, professor of forensic anthropology and director of the Forensic Investigation Research Station (FIRS), is assured she can ruin those types of shows for any CMU student in the forensic science minor program within their first semester.

“There’s a lot of naiveté because on TV, of course, they do it all,” Connor said. “One guy runs around with a badge, they’re arresting people, they’re taking cheek swabs, they are going to the scenes, but these are all different jobs.” (For the record, Connor did mention that Forensic Files was the most realistic of the shows.)

Connor admits the forensic shows, while somewhat misleading, may be used as teaching tools. Depending upon which aspect of the show students are drawn to, she helps students find their direction in a specific forensic science minor.

Connor’s own journey to forensic sciences began with her interest in archaeology in high school, but it was not a simple, straight path for Connor. “I kind of changed my major a couple of times. I tried journalism, I tried pre-law, but every summer I got hired as an archaeologist.”

Along with her three anthropology degrees, Connor has experience working on mass grave archaeological sites, like the Battle of Little Big Horn in Montana, during her 15 years with the National Parks Service. This combination of archaeology and forensic science led to Connor’s current passion of study: taphonomy. “My sub-specialty sits between archaeology and physical anthropology,” said Connor. “And that is what the research station (FIRS) is all about, how bodies decay.”

FIRS is a unique entity for CMU and provides students with an outdoor education facility at which they research and learn about taphonomy. Students may intern at the facility and the academic rigor of the internship and unique research experience help CMU students stand out when applying for jobs, Connor said.

Aside from producing employable students, Connor also wants her students to walk away with a greater appreciation for their field and useable life skills. “The subject matter that we cover does have a number of life lessons,” Connor said acknowledging the irony, “everything from floss regularly to larger issues like how people deal with the death of a relative.”

Connor is currently working with CMU Assistant Professor of Biology Eriek Hansen on a  $250,000-plus grant from the National Institute of Justice. The duo, along with a select number of students, are studying the post-mortem interval to better estimate how long someone has been dead.

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