The Forensic Science department at UTM will introduce a new Special Topics 300-level course taught by Dr. Nicole Novroski, an assistant professor in UTM’s anthropology and forensic science department. The course, FSC350, will focus on the topic of “Missing Persons DVI and Unidentified Human Remains” and will be held in the second semester of the current academic year.
Novroski, a new faculty member at UTM, came from the Center for Human Identification (CHI) at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in August. Her research interests include how current technologies in forensic biology can help can help with deconvolution of really complex DNA mixtures (DNA that has more than one person in it), new ways to process biological evidence, and investigating new kits and equipment that would improve how forensic casework labs process samples.
FSC350 will integrate some of Novroski’s research in order to address crucial topics that are relevant in forensic science, but haven’t necessarily been offered to forensic science students as an area of interest.
“My approach as a new faculty member was to explore those untapped interest areas like missing persons and disaster victim identification. I wanted to broaden people’s perspectives in terms of their understanding of such topics,” says Novroski.
Forensic science courses are rather focused when it comes to certain topics but this new course is intended to be more broad and interdisciplinary so that, as Novroski explains, “students will walk away more aware of what missing persons investigations involve from all areas of the judicial system, from an investigator’s perspective and from a scientist’s perspective. What roles does society play? What roles social media plays? How the family members can be involved?”
When it comes to missing persons, disaster victim identification (DVI), and unidentified human remains, there are many forensic disciplines that play a role. Novroski notes, “With this course, we are going to have the RCMP come in, the OPP, the Toronto Police Cold Case Unit, and hopefully expose students and other faculty alike, not only to the resources that are available in Canada and how those resources come together and cooperate, but also how all the forensic disciplines play a role and how forensic biology dips into many of those different disciplines. So, when you think about entomology, well you can still get DNA from insects and with anthropology, you can tie that back to genetics and ancestry and phenotyping. Basically, going full circle but with a heavy focus on biology in order to highlight the importance of forensic biology in those types of investigations.”
Students taking FSC350 will be given the opportunity to study real cases as the course progresses in order to facilitate considerations of how different disciplines have played roles in those cases. “I think that that will be a great interactive component for students to think about. What else could have been done? What were the obvious signs that were missed?” remarks Novroski. “It’s easy to go back and critique but when you’re in the moment you have people’s emotions, obscure and unreliable eyewitness testimony. So, there are all these things that factor into cases that make them either more complicated or more difficult to work through at the time.”
The course will give students the opportunity to go through the missing persons database so that they can see what kinds of information are available, what kinds of information are provided by the family, whether DNA evidence was provided and, if so, what kind. They’ll also consider what kinds of roles companies like “23andme” and “Ancestry.com” play when it comes to solving missing persons cases.
Students will learn from guest speakers about what initially happens at the beginning of a missing persons investigation, as well as the role that dogs play in the investigation, entomology, soil samples, the DNA databases, the genealogy databases, the anthropologist, and the archaeologists.
“I really want students to see that regardless of their area of interest in science, that it can all tie into a missing persons investigation. It’s not uniformly a forensic biology specific type of investigation; you’re not just doing DNA. There are so many other pieces and there are so many sociological pieces that are associated with it as well,” explains Novroski.
Due to missing persons cases being multi-faceted, involving individuals from a variety of disciplines, the course will cover a variety of areas relating to the roles that each individual plays in solving missing persons cases, whether it be police dogs, investigators, medical examiners, or bomb technicians, and even the sociological impact of these cases: “It’s a multi-faceted system and there are many people involved. The forensic biologist plays an important but small role in the grand scheme of that.”
Students won’t necessarily be assessed on their ability to “memorize facts so much as taking away larger lessons or larger pieces of information,” notes Novroski.
“Healthy discussion regarding cases that have a lot of players will be more useful than just learning about the mitochondrial DNA comparisons between reference profile and potential missing persons. These are all just key pieces of information regarding missing persons investigations and about where we’ve come from [and] where we’ve started. It’s a conversation that needs to be had and we just haven’t had it here yet.”