October 30, 2013

If Bones Could Talk: Anthropology Professor Helps Solve the Mysteries of Minnesota's Unidentified Persons

Susan Myster

"Do you mind sitting by bones?"

It’s an odd question, and Hamline University Professor Susan Thurston Myster ’84 realizes it soon after the words escape her lips. “It’s so second nature to us that we don’t necessarily remember that it’s not normal!” she says, chuckling apologetically.

Bones are Myster’s life. She spends up to seventy hours a week teaching about them and examining them—dividing her time between Hamline, where she is head of the state’s only forensic sciences program, and the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office in Ramsey, Minnesota, where she works as a forensic anthropologist.

In her lab at the medical examiner’s office, a windowless room with white walls and fluorescent lighting, Myster pulls up a chair across from her assistant, Sephanie Cole ’14, who is peering through a magnifying glass at ribs, vertebrae, and other human bones.

The bones Myster and Cole work with belonged to people whose remains were found in Minnesota but whose identities are a mystery. A trained eye like Myster’s often can determine age, sex, and ethnicity, and even uncover evidence of certain diseases or trauma from subtle clues hidden in the bones.

“There was a time when people thought you couldn’t tell anything from bones,” she says, “but the skeleton has a lot to say.”

Returning loved ones to their families


Myster is working with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) in a first-of-its-kind project to give some of the state’s unidentified persons their names—and dignity—back and bring their loved ones closure.

The BCA, which investigates missing persons cases in the state, and the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office received a joint grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund the yearlong project.

Bones from approximately 100 unidentified individuals have been transferred from medical examiner’s offices throughout the state to the Ramsey office, where Myster will conduct thorough examinations, photograph the bones, prepare reports, and send samples to the BCA for DNA extraction.

Analyzing a full skeleton takes about ten hours. Then there’s the paperwork. “Our reports will be legal documents if anything ever goes to trial,” Myster says. “You have to make sure you’re following best practices, that all of the documentation is accurate, that we take enough photos to support our findings and conclusions.”

Myster enters her findings into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a database that’s crosschecked against a similar one for missing persons. Both U.S. Department of Justice databases are accessible to the public, giving average Joes the opportunity to be “cyber sleuths.” “There have been cases where the public has helped solve a case,” Myster says.

To demonstrate, she conducts a random search in the unidentified persons database that turns up the profile of a person whose skull had been stored in a school since before 1969. “You wouldn’t believe what people store,” Myster says. “Now we’re getting a lot of people turning remains in. They’ll say, ‘Oh, my grandpa found this in the woods and just picked it up.’” Another random search leads to the profile of an infant.

After Myster examines the bones, scientists at the BCA pulverize a fragment into a fine powder, hydrate the sample, and then run it through a machine that extracts the DNA—a person’s unique genetic footprint.

However, mapping the DNA sequence of an unidentified individual is not enough to give that person his or her name back. For that to happen, it must be matched to the DNA of a relative.

“We can’t be successful in this endeavor unless people who have a missing loved one come forward and provide a DNA sample,” says Cathy Knutson, director of the BCA’s forensic science laboratory. That can be especially challenging in cases where a person’s death occurred decades ago, she adds.

A few months into the project, no matches between unidentified and missing persons have yet been found, but Myster feels hopeful. “Clearly, some of these unidentified people have to be missing persons,” she says.

Making a difference


Myster began working at the medical examiner’s office in 1991, a year after she joined the faculty at Hamline, her alma mater. One of only a few dozen board-certified forensic anthropologists in the nation, Myster handles almost all of the forensic anthropology cases in Minnesota.

Often she’s called to assist law enforcement officials with searches for missing persons or to make a preliminary analysis of remains at a crime scene. Whenever possible she brings students to give them experience in the field.

Hands-on opportunities like that are what attracted Myster’s assistant, Cole, to Hamline. “What’s really cool about forensic anthropology is you’re in a unique position to help people,” she says. “You get to hopefully give a family some closure when you identify their loved one.”

Myster felt drawn to forensic anthropology for the same reason. After a trial in which Myster was testifying, she recalls, a woman told her that knowing what happened to her brother gave their family peace and an opportunity to give him a dignified burial.

“That really hit me hard,” Myster says. “You know that it’s something that helps families, but it really brought that home because someone actually said, ‘This meant a lot to us that we knew what happened, even though it wasn’t good.’”

—Julie Carroll