By Linda Nguyen
Students at Baylor are speaking for the dead and, no, they’re not psychics.
The program identifies the bodies of deceased immigrants along the Texas-Mexico border and reunites their remains with their families.
Students were given this opportunity through a field school offered by the anthropology department in the summer.
A field school experience is required of all anthropology majors in order to provide experience in an anthropological field related to their future career goals.
This is just one of a variety of field schools available to students.
Baker took 18 undergraduate students with her on the field school experience.
The students were enrolled in a six-hour course titled Research Methods in Biological Anthropology.
“This gives them a learning opportunity most graduate students don’t have,” Baker said.
This is the first year this particular field school experience was offered to students.
The field schools offered to anthropology students rotate on a yearly basis, so it is unsure when the field school will be offered in the future.
Baker said she started the Reuniting Families program when she first came to Baylor in 2002.
“It started with my husband and I,” Baker said. “We looked at DNA samples from cases of unidentified immigrants. We did over 300 cases and we got about 70 identifications just from DNA samples.”
Baker said students can apply the different anthropological methods they’ve learned in class to practical situations.
“It makes a huge difference,” Baker said. “It shows they are capable and good at doing the work.”
Baker said the benefits of the field school were two-fold.
“The families of the immigrants benefit because without the students, the work would go undone and the students gain these invaluable experiences,” she said.
The students are currently doing analyses on the bodies they brought back to the family members.
“These families never tire,” Baker said. “They keep trying year after year to identify their loved ones.”
Officials enter the forensic information into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, which is then used by families to try to identify their loved ones.
“We send the bone samples to the University of North Texas and once we finish the analysis we enter the information into NAMUS, which is a missing person’s database,” Baker said.
Baker said each group of students does forensic analysis on one grave, typically one body, which includes DNA analysis, analysis for bone trauma and writing a biological profile.
“We exhumed 10 graves and recovered six bodies,” Baker said.
Garland senior Chloe Rose, an undergraduate student that went to the field school, said she enjoyed the experience.
Rose said she hopes to go to graduate school and work as a forensic investigator.
“I thought it was an amazing experience,” Rose said. “I had a lot of fun. It was my first time working with Dr. Baker but she’s really easy to get along with and she’s really helpful.”
Rose said the students were divided into four groups, with each group responsible for one grave where they did their own analyses.
Venezuela senior Sabrina Lacruz was another student involved with the field school over the summer.
“It was my first time in the field,” Lacruz said. “It was a new program so we didn’t have people to tell us about it. At first we were anxious, we didn’t know exactly what to expect.”
Lacruz said when the students first arrived on site, they began working.
“We started going at the graves, even hitting a 2-foot-layer of rock that we had to pickaxe through,” Lacruz said. “When we started finding pieces of wood, we knew we were getting close. We finally started finding bones and it turns out they were infant bones. We were able to recover 90 percent of the skeleton, not including the smaller bones.”
Lacruz said they found two infants in the grave and they brought them back to Baylor for further analysis.
“In the end, this experience exceeded any and all of my expectations,” Lacruz said. “It was a breath of fresh air. Going out into the field is so much different from being in the classroom.”
Robinson senior Jen Hausk, who was also part of the field school, said the experience reaffirmed her desire to work in forensic anthropology.
“To me, it confirmed what I wanted to do and lit a fire in me,” Hausk said. “I grew up watching CSI and wanting to do forensic anthropology. I’ve always wanted to do this. I want to help the dead speak because without us, they wouldn’t have a voice.”