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Students participate in CSI research

TAMPA, Fla. -- Forensics isn’t just popular fodder for television these days; it’s gained ground with real research done by students.

At the University of South Florida, undergraduate students are working on research with real-life implications for law enforcement and medical examiners.

Jared Tur, a senior double-majoring in biomedical sciences and anthropology, presented his research on isotopic analysis on tooth enamel and bone fragments at the American Association of Behavioral Social Science conference in Las Vegas in February. On April 15, he presented it at USF’s Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Every year there are nearly 4,400 unidentified human bodies discovered within the U.S., according to the Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Currently, there are more than 50 unidentified cases within Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties in Florida stored at the Hillsborough County medical examiner’s office.

Tur’s research analyzes isotopes from tooth enamel and bone fragments in an effort to reconstruct the deceased person’s diet to determine if they were born and raised locally. This could help law enforcement identify bodies, particularly if those remains are co-mingled with others.

Tooth enamel, which is grown during childhood, holds isotopic traces of elements that forensics specialists can use to trace where you were born and raised. Bones, however, replenish themselves every seven years and can tell scientists the rough geographic location of the last seven years of a person’s life.

Tur cited a study on Vietnam soldiers and co-mingled remains. The military knew where each missing soldier was from but were unable to match the bodies to the names. By analyzing strontium levels in the bodies to determine location, officials were able to identify one of the bodies as being from California and was able to reunite the family with the deceased soldier.

Isotopic analysis, Tur said, “is a really positive tool for identification, especially for mass or comingled remains. Military and law enforcement will really benefit. It can be rather expensive but if you tag along with the university, there are always undergraduates willing to do free work. Universities are usually willing to partner and have collaborations if funding is an issue for law enforcement.”

Tur said all the samples are from cold cases at the Hillsborough County medical examiners office. They date from the 1970s to 2009 and encompass roughly more than 30 cases.

Tur’s mentor for the project, Erin Kimmerle, is an assistant professor of anthropology at USF and treats cold case files as issues of human rights, stressing the importance of identifying John and Jane Does and returning them to their families for a proper burial.

“Her reputation is quite amazing, and it really opens the doors for meeting new people and getting the opportunity to do this type of research,” Tur said. “She really is an interesting person in this field and in Tampa. A lot of people come to her with cases, and it’s been an eye-opening experience for me.”

Senior Emily Helmrich’s research could not only impact law enforcement officials and forensic specialists, but health care providers as well.

Helmrich, also double-majoring in anthropology and biomedical sciences, is working with Russell Vega, the chief medical examiner of District 12 in Florida, to better prepare health care providers by allowing them to link unexplained cases of agranulocytosis, failure of the bone marrow to make enough white blood cells, with the possible use of cocaine tainted by levamisole, a chemical normally used in deworming medicine in animals and cancer treatment in humans.

The drug, when coupled with cocaine, compromises the user’s immune system.

“I think there’s a lot of stereotypes with who uses cocaine so as an anthropology major, that really hit home with me, to uncover who actually is using it versus who we think it using it,” Helmrich said. “As a biomedical sciences major, it’s important for me to show that we should care about what is in cocaine. There are no regulations to protect the users. There is no research being done to see what is being put into the product.”

Helmrich’s research involved testing bone marrow specimens from autopsy stock jars from 602 cocaine-related cases from Sarasota, Manatee and Desoto counties for patterns of cocaine from 2004 through 2010. Sixty-nine of the 602 cases were found to contain the presence of levamisole, with the first case seen in 2005 and a rapid increase in its prevalence beginning in 2008.

“[Dr. Vega] is just as excited about [the research] as I am,” Helmrich said. “The medical examiner has such a good option here. They can look at samples of a good size while physicians don’t necessarily have the resources to do such a large-scale study.”


Filed under:Arts and Sciences Anthropology Research Student Success  
Author: Daylina Miller