A skeleton found in an abandoned house haunted Jennifer Love (’99 & 01) for months. As the forensic anthropologist for Shelby County, Tennessee, it was her job to piece together clues from those bones to figure out who this person was and return the remains to their family.
From the bones, Love was able to determine that the skeleton belonged to a female—a young one. The fact that the growth plates had yet to close up completely told Love the girl was still a teenager when she died.
“Adults make decisions, and they may become transient, but with a child, you have to figure there’s a mother looking,” Love said in Texas Monthly in 2009.
In her free time between other cases, Love began searching missing child posters online, eventually contacting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. After reviewing the case and sifting through hundreds of missing person reports, the center sent Love a list of six possible matches. Based on dental records, she was finally able to find a match for the skeleton.
“Since that early case, I find identifying the unidentified the most rewarding part of my job,” Love said.
Now Love is the District of Columbia’s first full-time forensic anthropologist—a job she says is often exciting due to the diversity of residents and visitors. “Occasionally I’m involved with high-profile cases involving foreign nationals,” she said.
While Love provides anthropology services to the medical examiner’s office, she’s also head of the ID Unit. Her team of six people is responsible for confirming the identities of deceased individuals who come through the office and generating death certificates.
Love credits the anthropology faculty at UT for preparing her well for her current work.
“The faculty has a wealth of real-world experience that they share with students. They consult on forensic cases for numerous agencies and bring that experience into the classroom.”
The William M. Bass Skeletal Collection—the largest collection of modern human skeletons in the world—also had a big impact on her readiness for real-world work. “The size and breadth of the collection is an outstanding resource to build an understanding of what is normal as well as abnormal in the human skeleton,” says Love.
It’s this understanding that helps Love solve difficult cases—like that of the missing girl—and help their families.
“I don’t pretend what I do provides closure,” Love recently told the Washington Post, “but it is certainly providing them answers. What they can do with those answers, I don’t know. And what it means to them, I don’t know. But being able to provide them with answers—that’s good.”