Texas ID Made: Sarah Gaitan

After four months, a name has been given to the set of skeletal remains that were found in a farmer’s field in Texas: Sarah Gaitan.

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Sarah Gaitan, 24, went missing in October 2015. (Original Source)

The 24-year-old mother of four was missing since October 2015. She was from San Antonio, and the field she was found in is located in Marion County.

Last time we checked in on the case, officials were still looking through local missing persons and searching the field for more evidence. This process took weeks because the field was expansive and, as the farmer worked his land, more items were discovered.

With the help of Dr. Daniel Wescott from the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, investigators were able to use the skeletal analysis and dental records to make this identification.

They have succeeded in the most important part of these types of investigations – giving a name to the nameless, helping the lost find their way home. While it is a tragedy that Gaitan’s four children are without a mother, the family is better off with the closure of knowing where she is.


ORIGINAL NEWS CAST: Family fears for missing woman


The investigation, however, is far from over. Cause of death is still to be determined as well as how her remains ended up in a field more than 30 miles away to begin with. Authorities have not come public about whether or not there was foul play involved, and they are still seeking information.

 

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Is FARO’s ScanArm the future of forensic 3D imaging?

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FARO.com

FARO is the leading brand in 3D measurement technology used in factory work, public safety and now forensic anthropology. The FARO® Forensic ScanArm solution was designed specifically for criminal investigations.

When used with 3D Systems Geomagic® software, the ScanArm allows scientists a noncontact way to scan items of forensic interest in high resolution. It is armed with blue laser technology, which boasts noise-free scanning in high detail at high speeds.

According to the website, it is easily portable. So, it isn’t just some piece of expensive sitting equipment. Theoretically, you could get the scan done before you even take the remains or whatever items to the laboratory.

Despite those claims, it might not be the ideal field equipment the company hoped it would be:

However, this doesn’t take away from all the good things about the equipment.

The interface is designed so that people without 3D imaging experience should be able to navigate it. With 3D imaging being a newer discipline and with its rapid technological advancement, this is important. One day, scientists will probably be able to use 3D scanning devices as easily as they can use a laptop. For now, the transition is still underway, and easy-to-use interfaces will be very helpful for both the people making the scans and the ones making the scanners.

We talked about 3D copies of skulls for facial recognition in another post. The ScanArm bears the same significance as it means to enable scientists to make these copies with the newest technology and be able to work with sturdy evidence. That is, to make identifications without damaging fragile human remains or other evidence.

“By listening to our rapidly growing base of Public Safety – Forensics customers, we have learned that thoroughly measuring and analyzing forensic evidence is of paramount importance. Our non-contact measurement tools allow forensic labs to meet this requirement while minimizing the risk of damaging the evidence. It is now possible to produce accurate and permanent 3D digital documentation of evidence from which measurements can be taken and analysis can be performed days or even decades later…” –Joe Arezone, Chief Commercial Officer of FARO

The key here is “noncontact.” According to this statement, it is no longer necessary to handle the remains or risk damaging them. Further, there are no sprays necessary for the laser to scan, so there is no apparent risk for contamination.

The ScanArm isn’t only to aid forensic anthropologists, however. It is designed for crime labs to create a digital archive of evidence to store for years to come as well as to use in court presentations. Medical examiners can use the ScanArm to digitally collect traumatic injuries quickly.

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FARO.com

Another key is the speed with which these operations can be handled. Officials desire forensic investigations to be handled with care, but mostly with speed. And it is even worse when forensic anthropology and archaeology is a component of the investigation. It is hard work. If the ScanArm hopes to be successful, it will need to do the work accurately without taking away time from an already quickly ticking clock.

I can’t wait to see how else scientists will think to use the ScanArm and if it will live up to the high claims made by FARO.

Click here to learn more about the ScanArm and to schedule a personalized web demonstration.

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FARO.com

 

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Don’t cry over spilled milk

I’ve come across some research this past week about calcium and its relationship with our bone health.

Apparently, I was not wrong to assert that “we all know how important it is to drink our milk to allow for strong bones,” but I was dead wrong to assume we all know what we are talking about.

I came across a video on Facebook this week:

At first, I couldn’t believe it myself. Since I was in elementary school, I can remember my doctors, teachers, family and the television telling me how important milk was for the calcium in it.

But drinking cow’s milk is not essential to human bone health.

Okay, I will give you a second to let that sink in.

Now, I didn’t just take the word of the Vox video. I don’t believe everything I see on the internet. I looked up scientific studies to either support or deny the claim in bold. The most recent study I found was from last year, and it concluded that there is no correlation between the consumption of milk and the risk of bone fracture. (You can read it in full here.)

This isn’t to say milk doesn’t contribute to health in any way at all. Claims that milk is detrimental to bone health are unfounded. There are benefits.

“…it is a good source of high biological value proteins with polyvalent roles in immune function, as well as nutrient transport and absorption and important vitamins and essential minerals.” -Paula C. Pereira

But it isn’t as important as the government and big dairy has made it out to be. So, if you aren’t a fan of milk, it’s alright. There are better ways to get your calcium and other ways to get the same benefits from other foods.

 

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Racialization & Middle Eastern Americans

“War, hate, jealousy, racism – what are they but manifestations of fear?”
-F. Paul Wilson, American author

muslimsHave you ever been stopped at an airport because of your appearance? Has a teacher ever called you a terrorist in front of your classmates? Have you ever been publicly told you should die because of your religious beliefs and skin tone?

This and more happens to Middle Eastern-Americans every year in the United States.

We’ve talked a bit about race and social constructs on this blog before. Today, I want to explore the concept of racialization, specifically as it applies to Middle Eastern-Americans.

First, let’s define racialization. According to a quick search, you will find that it means “processes of ascribing ethnic or racial identities to a relationship, social practice, or group that did not identify itself as such.” It’s a bit vague, no?

Since America’s colonial foundations, the country has continued to see more than its fair share of racism. It isn’t surprising, in a country that started its history committed to using “whiteness” as a dominating system. Whiteness has always been, in some way, an essential characteristic of freedom. Therefore, racism establishes non-whites as different, “other,”  a label that begins racialization for any group.

As colonists marked Native Americans and African slaves as nonwhites or the inferior “them,” they also marked whites as the superior “us.” In addition, this racial hierarchy established who was able to own property and who was property. This distinction is not limited to times of slavery:

  • Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882-1943
  • Black Codes, 1865
  • Jim Crow Laws, up to 1965

African-Americans and other groups have made it through the Civil Rights Era rather victoriously. Is it fair to say the fight for civil liberties ended with the era? I think not. Inequality runs rampant; it just finds new ways.

At least there are movements like Black Lives Matter for African-Americans. What do Middle Eastern-Americans have? Who is protesting on their behalf?

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The racialization of Middle Eastern people began long before 9/11, very much through popular culture. They have been portrayed as barbaric, implying the superior civilization of Western culture when compared with the “savage” Orient. (Think, Aladdin!) patriot-act

After 9/11, Middle Eastern-Americans were rapidly and radically racialized and are facing increasing hostility.While the Patriot Act expired last year, the damage has already been done. Racial profiling is supported by many Americans – an means to a “justified” end.


“Much like the impact of entertainment media, American news broadcasts impact public opinion, and not so implicitly.  Only a handful of companies own all the media in the U.S. Each brand works to cater to its audiences, often foregoing actual news reporting for news analysis and commentary.  Most noticeably, Fox News panders to the Republican party while CNN is considered to be more Democratic. The way these organizations talk about Middle Eastern people intensely affects racial division in the U.S. through the sensationalization of American nationalism against terrorists and the misrepresentation of terrorists as Islamic rather than as radical fundamentalists. No less than fifty-five percent of Middle Eastern-Americans are Christian, anyway, yet Muslim has become synonymous with Arabic.

One study looked at talk shows from both Fox News and CNN and found negative depictions of Muslims in every show analyzed including Larry King Live and Fox News Sunday.  According to the study, the talk shows framed Muslims as a threat to western “civilization.” This frames Middle Eastern people as Muslim and Muslims as anti-American.  Forty-two percent of the time, Arabs were brought up in the context of the war on terror.  Middle Eastern countries like Pakistan were discussed as threats to “world peace that it’s now terrorist central” (Pervez & Saeed, 2010).  Further, the news talk shows presented completely inaccurate portrayals of the teachings of Islam. As the general public trusts their chosen networks, the People accept false truths as fact and perpetuate misunderstood interpretations of Islam, additionally implicating Arab- and Muslim-Americans as threats to the American way of life.

Presently, the race for the Presidency is unveiling the true colors of the American constituency, especially as it pertains to presidential candidate and former reality TV star Donald Trump.  Throughout the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly pinned the American people against Middle Eastern and Muslim people.  He’s blatantly advocated for the killing of the loved ones of terrorists, the return of waterboarding suspects, the banning of Muslims from entering the country and the closing and surveillance of American mosques.  As for the banning of Muslims traveling to the U.S., a March poll illustrates fifty percent of American voters support Trump’s plan (Wong, 2016).

The political…rhetoric in the U.S. pins Middle Easterners as America-hating enemies who want nothing more than to harm the “infidels.”  While it is directed at foreign Arabic people and Middle Eastern countries, many Americans who subscribe to the views of political candidates like Trump apply this hate speech to American citizens who fit the popularized physical description of a terrorist.” (DeNardo, 2016)


All the things that create our social reality, such as television, movies, education, news media, lawmakers and more, have a responsibility in this process as well as to reverse it – deconstruct the racial reality. We cannot stand by and allow innocent people to be harassed, innovative 14-year-old boys to be arrested and the like.

death_to_all_arabsWith ISIS/L and the global tensions from the organization’s desire to dominate, there is no wonder there is fear.  However, racism as a reaction to fear does not need to be permanent.

We must:

  • reform the news media
  • facilitate political organization
  • hold authorities accountable
  • dismantle stereotypes
  • highlight the achievements of Middle Eastern-Americans
  • admit there is a problem
  • be better

 

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Recent Body Farm Findings Change Future of Forensics

Remember when I said some body farms have used pigs in taphonomic reasearch? Well, it looks like the times are changing.

This week, the original Body Farm in Knoxville released new information that may affect an enormous amount of cases around the world.

 

It was a previously accepted practice to study decomposing animals to get information about humans. However, this new study illustrated such variance between animal and human decomposition that they become incomparable.


“Now anthropologists and entomologists may be asked in court which studies they used to base their estimate of postmortem interval, and if they are based on nonhuman studies, their testimony could be challenged,” – Dawnie Steadman, director of the Forensic Anthropology Center


For the study, the researchers placed fifteen of each species of pig, rabbit, and human at the Anthropology Research Facility over three seasons to assess decomposition patterns and rates.

In the study, 15 pigs, 15 rabbits and 15 human subjects were set to decompose over spring, summer and winter (5 of each per season) at the Anthropology Research Facility. Scientists were looking to analyze the patterns of insect activity and scavenging associated with decomposition as well as the rate at which each body decomposed.

In the spring, the pigs skeletonized faster than the humans. The rabbits were initially slower, but the rate of decomp took off when the maggots developed. In the summer, the pigs decomposed much faster and more completely than both humans and rabbits. Lastly, in the winter, it took 100 days before there was any insect activity, but there was scavenging. The humans seemed to make a tastier snack to the local critters as they didn’t pay much attention to the dead animals until after the human remains were picked clean.

These observations show that comparing animal and human decomposition is basically impossible. The future of forensic science and litigation will depend more on human body donations than ever before.

 

 

 

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Beyond Decomposition: The use of ‘body farms’ in research

Imagine this: You are a scientist at a University that has finally approved your request to do outdoor forensic research using real human remains. The first few unclaimed bodies are shipped to you, a present from the local morgue.

You take each body and set them under certain conditions. One is put head first into a body of water, legs resting on land. Another is secured under a cage in direct sunlight, free from disturbances from animals. The last one is nude and covered with shrubbery and dark plastic.

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Every day, you check on the bodies to see how the decomposition is being affected by the varying conditions. You stick with your research through the bloating and all. The smell of rotting human flesh has become almost normal.

Sounds like a job for a character in a horror movie, right?

Since 1981, this has been a very real scenario for forensic anthropology faculty and students. The first outdoor research center for forensic taphonomic processes was opened by anthropologist Dr. William Bass at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Today in the U.S., there are six operational facilities:

Colloquially, these facilities are referred to as body farms, although some view the term as disrespectful.

“People like me intended no irreverence when we called it that, for no one respects the dead more than those of us who work with them and hear their silent stories.  The purpose is to help the living. That was the point when The Body Farm came into being more than twenty years before, when scientists got determined to learn more about time of death.  On any given day its several wooded acres held dozens of bodies in varying stages of decomposition. Research projects had brought me here periodically over the years, and though I would never be perfect in determining time of death, I had gotten better.” -Patricia Cornwell, The Body Farm (1994)

Not only do Cornwell’s words address the issue of respect toward the dead, they als0 provide an example of the importance of these research facilities in improving forensic skill.

The research done at body farms in becoming increasingly essential to the furthering of knowledge about different rates of decomposition, insect activity and animal scavenging. Projects can range from how climate and environment affect decomposition to how bodies react to being frozen.

The data from such research an assist forensic experts in real-life investigations in establishing traits like postmortem interval, or the time that’s passed since a person’s death. Body farms also serve other functions such as training centers for forensic anthropology students, law enforcement and cadaver dogs.

So far, the only body farms are located within the U.S.The problem with this is the research tends to be climate-specific. U.S. states and countries without body farms don’t have the taphonomic data for their region. This is why it is so important for the public in other countries to be educated about forensic research, to garner support for the building of such facilities abroad.

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Australia, near the new facility. (Original Source)

The first one outside of the U.S. will most likely be located in Australia at the University of Technology, Syndey. The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research, as it will be called, will be the first step in catching up other parts of the world with this type of forensic advancement.

The United Kingdom is also behind with forensic anthropological research. In the UK, pigs are being used in taphonomic pursuits. Unfortunately, the variability of humans makes the research on pigs less meaningful or applicable.

The UK is in need of a outdoor human body farm – but there are a lot of obstacles before that can happen. Citizens are expressing concern about where human research facilities will be located and how it will affect them. There isn’t the same opportunity for isolation of a facility there as in the States. Then, there’s funding and obtaining the bodies.

Who knows when these obstacles will be overcome? Until the conditions are met and the UK and other countries can move forward in this process, the potential to expand the breadth of scientific research for the sake of research as well as for application in medicolegal cases is at a halt.

 

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What’s new in facial reconstruction?

At times, forensic investigators have a hard enough time identifying human remains with most of the flesh present. So what happens when the body is mostly or fully skeletonized?

A forensic artist uses the skull and scientific parameters to reconstruct the face of the individual. This is used to compare with missing persons and try to identify them. Since the discipline began, drawings and models using the skull have been used in the process, and there are problems with these practices.

The biggest problem is the subjectivity of the forensic artists, which can also lead to unidentified individuals never being identified because some features can’t be measured osteologically.

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A facial reconstruction of Gail Matthews, a victim of the Green River Killer. Her lips were unique and unable to be properly estimated due to decomposition.

3D printing is transforming forensic science and biological anthropology and for the better. Scientists use CT and MRI scans as well as other medical imaging techniques. Using this data, they are able to produce 3D models of bones from a 3D printer. The anatomically correct models are able to show trauma on the bones.

Skeletal remains are not usually entered into evidence in a court of law because it is thought to be too disturbing. These models eliminate the traumatic experience of seeing the dead person’s actual remains. To handle bones in the courtroom can cause degradation to them, destroying evidence. With 3D printing, this doesn’t happen.

This new technology is still being developed and perfected by scientists every day. The future will see increasing applications of forensically applied medical procedures. These applications will become standardized and more accurate over time, eliminating most of the subjectivity that compromises some cases.

 

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