Ashley (A.B. ’06) is forensic anthropologist and assistant professor at California State University, Chico.

Degree: Anthropology-Zoology

Current location: Chico, CA

Year graduated: 2006

Student Organization Involvement: I played intramural soccer and worked as an intern in the U-M Pathology Department (photography unit)

Other jobs held or graduate programs attended since graduation:
M.A. in Physical Anthropology from California State University, Chico (2010);
M.A. in Physical Anthropology from Michigan State University (2012);
Ph.D. in Physical Anthropology from Michigan State University (2016);
Medico-Legal Death Investigator in Lansing, MI;
Visiting Assistant Professor at University of Montana;
Assistant Professor/Forensic Anthropologist at CSU, Chico


AK: I am one of three forensic anthropologists that Chico State has on staff. The three of us teach all of the biological forensic anthropology courses, and we also run the human identification lab, which is right on the university campus. We work with local medical examiners and law enforcement to do all of the forensic anthropology case work for a large portion of California. We do anywhere from 40 to 80+ cases per year. Case work involves looking at a skeleton to establish a biological profile (determining someone’s age, sex, stature, ancestry, etc.) and getting an ID on an unknown deceased. We often also do trauma analyses and determine the post-mortem interval of the deceased (coming up with the time frame between when someone disappeared and when the skeleton was recovered).



KC: What exactly is forensic anthropology?



AK: Forensic anthropology is basically helping to establish identification from skeletal remains. There are specialties that people can pursue within this greater field; certain members of my field are internationally known for trauma analyses or ancestry determination, for example. But even though you can specialize later on, your training and background will typically include all areas.


KC: Some people get into similar fields by specializing in pathology in medical school so they may conduct autopsies. Do you work frequently with those people?

 

AK: We do – these people are called “forensic pathologists.” I deal with autopsies more when human remains are unidentifiable due to decomposition, burning, or dismemberment. If a pathologist is looking at trauma that involves more soft tissue, that’s in their realm. If it’s a trauma analysis that involves bone, that’s when they will call a forensic anthropologist; we act on a consulting basis for the medical examiner to substantiate their findings in the autopsy.

 

KC: What made you want to specialize in this field specifically rather than going to medical school and performing full autopsies?



AK: I love working with the bones! It gives me one more level of separation from the person. If you go into an autopsy, you know the person’s backstory. You see what they look like and who they are. As a forensic anthropologist, I don’t necessarily see things like nail polish and tattoos, which makes my job less personal and a little bit easier. I also love teaching, and anthropology has given me the opportunity to work with students within an academic institution, rather than working in a morgue. I actually had an internship at the U-M Morgue for two years in undergrad, and I found it fascinating, but I wanted to be more of an academic, so I ended up in anthropology.

 

KC: How would you describe your day-to-day job responsibilities?



AK: My job is equally split between teaching (both undergraduate and graduate classes) and working in the medico-legal legal system. I teach about three days a week and do cases on a rotating basis as they come in. Typically I have at least one active case that I’m working on at all times. I am also involved with training local coroners and law enforcement.

 

KC: What has been your path since graduating from Michigan until now?



AK: I finished at U-M in 2006. I actually took an osteology course my junior or senior year at U-M. That, combined with my internship in the Pathology Department, solidified that I wanted to work in a medico-legal context with criminal investigation and law enforcement, etc. I thought that I wanted to do forensic anthropology, but I had never taken a class in undergrad (U-M doesn’t have forensic anthro), so I started making phone calls. I called individuals who worked at some of the major universities with forensic anthro programs, asking for their opinions on how to apply and get into those programs. I got into CSU Chico and fell in love with the field!

I spent three years at Chico helping with all of their cases in the human ID lab. During that time, I taught several of their Intro to Physical Anthropology courses. That was my first introduction to undergraduate-level teaching. After that, I went back to Michigan State and got a Masters and Ph.D., also in physical anthropology with an emphasis in forensics. While I was at MSU, I worked for five years as a medico-legal death investigator around the Lansing area. That was a really interesting job for me because it gave me another perspective on the medico-legal system. So typically, when we bring cases into an anthro lab, we work a lot with law enforcement, but we’re never actually there at the scene. As a medico-legal death investigator, I was second on scene to respond to an unexpected death or a crime scene, following law enforcement. It allowed me to see a case from start to finish and broadened my view of how the medico-legal system works. I also pursued a certification as a death investigator during this job.

I finished my Ph.D. at Michigan State in 2016. After graduation, I had a one-year position as a visiting professor at the University of Montana. I taught six of their Biological Anthropology courses and was the sole forensic anthropologist for the state of Montana last year. I’m doing largely the same thing now in Chico, CA.



KC: When you were an intern in the U-M Pathology Department, what were you doing in the photography unit?



AK: This department had years’ worth of autopsy photos on 35mm slides. I worked on digitizing all of those slides for the pathologist. While I was there, I was also able to shadow a few people to see what exactly forensic pathologists do for a living. I realized that probably wasn’t the career I wanted to pursue, and it pushed me towards forensic anthro instead.



KC: What is your favorite thing about your job, and what is the most challenging?



AK: My favorite thing about my job… as a forensic anthropologist, you typically have two possible career paths. You can work in an ME’s office or for a government agency doing mostly case work and laboratory analyses, or you can work in a university setting and primarily teach. What I really like about my job is that I don’t have to select one or the other. When I come to work I can wear both hats on a daily basis. To me, doing case work is so fascinating, but I also LOVE working with students.

As for the most challenging aspect? I can’t tell you anything that I dislike, but I CAN tell you something that I’m nervous about… one of the things that we are expected to do is be expert witnesses if any of our cases go to court. I have not yet had to act as an expert witness, and I think that’s something that will be challenging for me because I did not receive that training during graduate school.



KC: For students who are looking into graduate schools, what are the typical ones or top ones for this field?



AK: There are programs scattered all over the US in this field. For masters programs, there’s California State University Chico, Michigan State, Texas State University in San Marcos, and Boston University. There are also a number of Ph.D. programs including the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and Michigan State. I would recommend that students try to reach out to faculty at those institutions and get more information on applying.



KC: What advice would you give to current students hoping to follow in a similar career path?



AK: If they’re interested in a forensic field, try to get as many hands-on experiences as they can. There are workshops, internships, etc. – just do anything that you can to learn how the medico-legal system works prior to applying to a masters program. That will really increase your chances of getting in. As long as you’re persistent and you start looking ahead of time, you’ll be fine.