Forensics awarded grant to study sex of skeletons

Erin McGarrity, Staff writer

The Mercyhurst Department of Applied Forensic Sciences received a grant of $126,871 from the U.S. National Institute of Justice last week to test two new methodologies for estimating the sex of human skeletal remains and create an interactive database of the results.
Alexandra Klales, Ph.D, assistant research professor in the department, is the principal investigator on the project. She submitted the nearly 200-page grant proposal, which she single-handedly drafted in April. She found out about the award on Sept. 16.
“I started writing it about two or three months in advance, because they require fairly extensive background when you apply for this type of thing,” said Klales. “They need to know why your research is needed, what exactly needs to be done, the impact that your study will make on forensic science – everything.”
Klales graduated from Mercyhurst in 2009 with a master’s degree. As part of Klale’s master’s thesis at Mercyhurst, she created a new method for sex estimation.
The method, which numerous forensic science agencies throughout the world have implemented, looks specifically at non-metric, or non-measurable, traits of the pelvis bone to determine sex. The method’s ordinal grading system makes it less subjective, and scientists have found it rather user friendly.
During her time at Mercyhurst, Klales worked in the Applied Forensic Sciences Department as a research assistant on two other NIJ grants. She credits her experience on those grants with helping her earn this one.
Thanks to this grant, Klales and two Mercyhurst graduate students will work to create an interactive, free database that will help establish biological profiles, or summaries of all biological aspects, of unidentified individuals using various statistical equations. The database will be available on both the NIJ’s and Mercyhurst’s websites. The project will begin in January 2016, and it will last two years.
Klales’ goal in this endeavor
is to make her method applicable worldwide so users can apply her method with confidence and in a user-friendly format.
“Lots of people like this method because it doesn’t
require any specialized equipment. We just want to make sure it’s reliable and valid in other countries, and, if it’s not, we’ll formulate new equations for each population specifically,” Klales said.
The families of unidentified crime victims, according to Klales, will benefit the most from the results of this project. Many of those individuals met an untimely death, and she hopes to have a hand in putting identities to those remains.
Dennis Dirkmaat, Ph.D, director of the Applied Forensic Sciences department, shed light on what this grant means for both the program and the school moving forward.
“This further solidifies the Department of Applied Forensic Sciences’ role as a leader in the field of Forensic Anthropology,” said Dirkmaat. “The school also benefits because it clearly demonstrates to the local and regional community, as well as to prospective students, that important, cutting-edge scientific research can be accomplished at a small school.”
On top of helping the families of victims gain closure, Klales also hopes to have the opportunity to incorporate some of her undergraduate students into the project.
“I’ve had a few undergraduates express interest, because they want the first-hand experience. There is definitely a lot of potential to integrate them, and I hope for them it provides a little look into the future at what’s possible for them when they leave here,” Klales said.
Dirkmaat, too, hopes that this research will leave a lasting impact on undergraduate students that volunteer to work with Klales on this project.
As far as working on this project at the school that started it all, Klales could not be happier.
“It feels really fantastic. This department is like my second family – I’m really proud,” Klales said.