This month we are very excited to feature Dr. Kathleen J. Reichs, Author and Forensic Anthropologist. She is also the producer of the hit Fox TV series “Bones”. She found time in her very busy schedule to answer the interview questions we sent her. Stay inspired!
What is your profession?
I’m a forensic anthropologist, and, of course, author. Forensics is the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to a legal system. Locard’s Exchange Principle dictates that every contact leaves a trace. Every time people meet, touch, or enter a room, they leave specks of themselves behind, and they carry specks off when they go. Those transferred bits of thread, dust, or eyelash enable keen-eyed scientists to link bad guys to their crimes.
I look at bone. The “evidence” I examine is the victim. As a forensic anthropologist, I examine decomposed, burned, dismembered, and mummified bodies and skeletons. I may be asked to determine age, sex, race, and height. I may be asked to estimate how long someone has been dead, or to describe what was done to his or her body after they stopped breathing.
My line of work is not for the squeamish. Cases arriving at my lab are homicide, suicide, and accident victims, people who have suffered violent deaths. Forensic anthropologists tend to get the most severe cases, ones that can’t be resolved by the pathologist through a normal autopsy. What I always keep in mind is that I work with the dead, but for the living. I help families when someone has gone missing. I testify in court to bring justice if there has been a violent crime.
What inspiration did you have to enter your profession?
It was a lifelong interest. When I was a kid, I liked to read the Popular Archaeology book series. I loved Thor Heyerdahl’s books, especially the one about the Kon-Tiki and the one about Easter Island. When I went to my 10-year high school reunion and they had listed what everybody had gone on to do, and I’d gotten my doctorate, everyone said, “Oh, yeah, you were always reading those archaeology books in high school.” So apparently it was more of an interest than I even remembered.
What classes do you have to take in high-school and/or college to prepare for your profession
Science, science, science. Aspiring forensic anthropologists should take Biology, Chemistry, Anthropology, Archaeology. Also, the need for forensics crosses borders and so do people, so language classes are essential. Finally, given the nature of information technology today, Computer classes. For a slice of science in application, college students should look for Archaeology and Anthropology field schools. Like Tempe Brennan in BONES, my career started in Washington, DC. My own first field school was an anthropological dig in the Catocin River basin, near Washington
Did you have a mentor?
I would say my mentor was my major professor at Northwestern graduate school, Dr. Jane Buikstra. But you don’t need to be an aspiring PhD to seek a mentor. Students shouldn’t hesitate to approach their role models or inspirations. If you don’t have a specific mentor in mind, both the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) and the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists (ABFA) have student sections, which place you in the mix of intelligent and committed professionals.
Is there anything you want to tell the readers of AWIFS (words of encouragement, challenges, hobbies, special interests, etc.)?
Study science and go for it. It sounds simple, but it’s true. The days of guiding girls away from science have thankfully passed, but often we can persuade ourselves that certain dreams are out of reach or impractical. Don’t do that. If you want something, keep your eyes on the prize, work hard, and make it happen. I’ve always liked Stephen King’s statement that the only two things you need to do to be a writer are to read and to write. It’s succinct but true – if you want to be something, don’t overthink everything. Sit down at your desk and do the work of being that thing. Anything is possible.