No Bones About It
Hands on experience is vital to learning skeleton science.
James Weldon Johnson’s famous spiritual “Dem Dry Bones” says in song what Dr. Phoebe Stubblefield’s bone collection tells her students today: how the pieces of human skeleton fit together from head to toe. It’s all about the fit. This bone connects to that bone connects to that other bone…until you get to the full sense of what a human skeleton is in life and biology.
Stubblefield, assistant professor of anthropology, directs the UND Forensic Science Program, an interdisciplinary program offering curricula for crime scene processing and laboratory analysis of evidence.
“We have a relatively small collection of human bones that we use to teach,” said Stubblefield, who built up her skills as an investigator at the University of Florida under the watchful tutelage of the famous William Maples, author of the well-known book, Dead Men Do Tell Tales.
“I saw more cases there [at Florida] as a graduate student than most forensic scientists see in their whole careers,” Stubblefield said. “It was so busy there in Dr. Maples’ lab that we’d see upwards of 100 cases per year, an experience comparable with a career’s worth of casework.”
Part of the study included examining a lot of reference collections, a practice she encourages among her students, Stubblefield said.
“You can’t do human osteology — or skeleton science — without such a collection,” she said. “I’ve been building on this [UND’s] collection since I ‘inherited’ it, or took over its stewardship, from Dr. John Williams, my predecessor here.”
“The value of the collection to the student depends upon the field, of course,” she said. “Across my entire college experience, I developed interests in certain areas because I had access to some kind of collection or I was taught from someone’s collection. My most memorable classes were those where there was a good teaching collection or a research collection where I was doing a project.”
Stubblefield, who works cases for local and regional law enforcement authorities, uses her collections in a crime lab-like setting where students get hands-on experience. It’s all about being real.
“If you’re trying to learn skeletal biology just from reading a book, that’s not enough,” she said.
“Every teacher in this field has to develop a collection or develop a close relationship with someone who has a collection. You’re not going to teach or learn this subject just from words on paper. You need a chance to touch and feel, to learn in the same way you learned when you were 5.”
Juan Pedraza | Staff Writer