Top facilities and faculty lead to a decade of growth for forensic science and forensic anthropology programs

One of the biggest selling points for the forensic anthropology program is its human decomposition facility, known as the Forensic Osteology Research Station. WCU was the second university in the country to have a human decomposition facility and now is one of just nine such facilities in the world.

On Sept. 5, when enrollment is finalized, Western Carolina University expects to announce record-breaking enrollment for the fifth year in the last six. We’ll also be able to officially report a growth of more than 20 percent in the last decade, a trend completely counter to enrollment declines happening across the country. In our series, WCU Thrives, we explore some of the programs and people that have played a role in our incredible momentum.

Today, we cover our nationally recognized Forensic Anthropology and Forensic Science programs. These programs have seen a combined growth of 229 students since 2007.

It started in 2000 when CBS launched what would become one of the most popular shows on television, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” a procedural forensic crime drama series.

That was followed up in 2005 with Fox’s debut of “Bones,” a show based on forensic anthropology. Who knew at the time that the two TV programs, along with a host of others that followed, would lead to the growth of Western Carolina University’s programs in forensics? Forensic anthropology and forensic science, debuted at WCU in 2004 and 2006, respectively, have played a role in enrollment growth in the last decade. The two programs have added approximately 229 students since 2007, equal to more than 12 percent of the total growth at WCU during the same period.

The forensic anthropology program has grown from approximately 34 students in 2007 to 122 in the fall of 2017. Its peak year was 2011 when 135 students were enrolled. Those declaring forensic science as a major or pre-major combined for an unofficial 165 students in the fall of 2017 after a high of 167 in 2016. In 2007, there were just 24 forensic science majors.

“They often call it the ‘CSI effect,’ ” said Nicholas Passalacqua, coordinator of the forensic anthropology program. Enrollment in the program has increased as the popularity of forensic anthropology has increased through the exposure of that TV show. “It’s kind of funny to talk to these kids who say, ‘I was in the fourth grade and I started watching the show and I’ve always wanted to do it.’ They grew up knowing what forensic anthropology is and wanting to be forensic anthropologists. For me, it was an obscure field when I was growing up. It was very rare to have anybody know about forensic anthropology.”

Forensic anthropology students learn how to examine bones to determine a victim’s age, sex, stature and ancestry, as well as cause of death and past trauma.

Through examining decomposed remains, forensic anthropologists can potentially determine a victim’s age, sex, stature and ancestry, as well as cause of death and past trauma. Forensic scientists collect, preserve and analyze scientific evidence during the course of an investigation. Their work is primarily done inside a laboratory.

Forensic anthropology is currently offered at WCU as a concentration with a bachelor of science degree in anthropology, or as a forensic anthropology minor. Students who minor in forensic anthropology typically major in programs such as forensic science, criminology, criminal justice, psychology and biology, said Kathleen Brennan, the department head for anthropology and sociology.

“We really try to stress a four-field approach – cultural, linguistic, archaeology and biological anthropology,” Brennan said. “That is the strength of our program. Not all anthropology programs emphasize that.”

One of the programs biggest selling points is its human decomposition facility, known as the Forensic Osteology Research Station. WCU was the second university in the country to have such a facility and now is one of just nine such facilities in the world. WCU is one of just two programs in the U.S. that offer forensic anthropology as an undergraduate concentration.

“The human decomposition facility is a big draw because it’s really rare to have a facility like that, and as an undergrad, to be able to work at a facility where you’re going to be able to have that kind of experience,” Passalacqua said. “It’s just a really unique opportunity for students to get involved in something they’re so interested in and it’s kind of a unique discipline. It’s not everyday you’re doing this kind of work.”

The forensic anthropology program also offers travel programs. A group of students recently accompanied anthropology and sociology instructor Katie Zejdlik to Romania for a class project that was centered on the excavation of human remains from an abandoned medieval church.

While the program is composed mostly of North Carolina residents, Passalacqua said the uniqueness of the program attracts a number from other states. Most of the faculty are certified through the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, and several have done case work for local and state agencies.

“We’re the first program to have three board-certified forensic anthropologists teaching full-time,” Passalacqua said. “When you consider the resources and the opportunities and the experience of the faculty that are all here, it’s a wealth of knowledge and information for the students.”

Students have gone on to careers in law enforcement, the State Bureau of Investigation, or even cadaver dog handling. Passalacqua said the program is currently trying to push students toward careers as autopsy assistants or medical legal investigators because of the shortage in those fields, and the fact that need a graduate degree is not necessary to be a death investigator.

The bachelor of science degree in forensic science is a laboratory-based program with curriculum that focuses heavily on science and mathematics courses. It was designed by former FBI agent Mark Wilson and looks to prepare students to work in crime laboratories after graduation.

One of the benefits for students is the cutting-edge technology that is available to them at WCU, said interim director of the forensic science program Kelly Grisedale.

“We have a lot of things that they use in crime labs, and we’ve got a lot of DNA sequences that aren’t even in crime labs yet because they’re too new,” Grisedale said. “We look at developing methods, or optimizing methods, to use these new techniques that can help labs integrate them into their routine case work.”

The program offers concentrations in biology or chemistry, and students learn how to apply those sciences to forensic science. All students are required to do either research or an internship.

“Those who do research with us have an opportunity to get a lot of hands-on experience with these cool new toys,” Grisedale said. “We get to play mad scientist with some of these things. We also are lucky that we often can take students to big national and international forensic science meetings and conferences. There’s the potential their research can be presented to all the experts in the field.”

A forensic science degree can lead to a career as a crime scene analyst, forensic DNA analyst, forensic chemist or forensic toxicologist. Grisedale said some students go on to medical school to become medical examiners or forensic pathologists.