Washburn students help solve real life cases

Forensic anthropology is an important aspect of crime investigation, but defining the exact parameters of the job can be difficult due to popular media romanticizing the profession. Forensic anthropologists do work few others have, both the ability or the desire to do. They are the ones who deal with the delicate matter of identifying bodies that are found by police and investigators. It’s a job that requires both discretion and high professionalism, as it is through anthropologists work that cases can be more easily solved and families can attain a measure of closure.

Washburn University often encourages students to gain hands-on experience for the fields they study in and forensic anthropology is no different, for this reason students within this major can participate in the Forensic Anthropology Recovery Unit.

WU-FARU is a partnership between Washburn University and local law enforcement where students are able to participate and be a part of real life investigations in the Topeka and Kansas City areas.

Alexandra Klales is the assistant professor for the forensic anthropologist department, she also runs the Washburn University Forensic Anthropology Recovery Unit and ensures students have the tools needed to perform well while they are in the field. Working on Forensic cases since 2007, Klales brought her knowledge and experience in 2016.

“Part of the reason I came to Washburn is that they had the partnership with KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) and they were starting brand new forensic programs,” Klales said.

Klales was able to focus her real life experience and extensive knowledge of Forensic Anthropology to the department in a way that opens up opportunities for Washburn students.

“Our field of forensic anthropology is pretty small, comparatively speaking, and so there are not a lot of people who do Forensic anthropology,” Klales said. “The gentleman that was doing a lot of the case work for Kansas is getting ready to retire, and so I saw that as a great opportunity to work at Washburn, but then also that partnership with KBI, and then also a need for forensic anthropologists in this region.”

Klales also said that when she started working at Washburn, she began making connections with the KBI, local coroners office and the Kansas department of health and environment. Coordinating with them, Klales was able to provide students with experience in the field solving real forensic cases but also provide a needed service to the Kansas community. She explained that when local law enforcement, police, investigators or medical examiners encounter cases that present unique challenges, such as a badly burnt body or someone who is completely skeletonized. WU-FARU is able to step in and provide assistance recovering, identifying and determining the cause of death for the individual.

“Forensic Anthropology takes really specialized training. You have to know the human skeleton inside and out and backwards, really tiny pieces of it, what it looks like when it’s burned or damaged. There are not a lot of anthropology programs in the U.S. or even in the world. Washburn is the only one in the Midwest that offers a bachelors in forensic with an anthropology concentration. Washburn is also one of only five in North America where students actually get to work with real cases so that when they go to graduate school or into the job field they have actual hands-on experience with real cases.”

When you think of the term forensic anthropology, you would be forgiven for romanticizing the job as it’s likely most people’s exposure to the job is through media, such as Fox’s hit tv show “Bones.” Though the reality of working on criminal cases is less glamorous than our entertainment would have us believe, there is a rewarding aspect in helping families find closure by helping them to know the final fate of their loved ones.

“We are helping identify people that have been murdered or killed, so we are providing closure for their families. We’re providing information that law enforcement can use to hold somebody accountable. We are providing a community service to try and figure out what happened to these people. Students are making a meaningful difference in the community by playing a part in solving these crimes.

Klales explained that forensic anthropology is not a job that everyone is capable of doing.

“I used to teach at a university that had a masters program, and sometimes we would get students that would start their first semester in the masters program. They had never been around a body before, they had never been around a real forensic case and they would sometimes quickly realize they either can’t handle it physically and emotionally, or that it is not for them.”

Klales went on to say that by giving students an opportunity to experience these things at the undergraduate level, it allows them to better tailor career goals toward something that will fit them better. Those who do choose to work in forensic anthropology have an excellent opportunity at Washburn to not only start working in the job place before graduating, but also to help their community to be a better place.