NMU’s Forensic Research Outdoor Station (FROST) is continuing to be developed as the semester comes to a close.
Fencing around the outdoor part of the facility is finished and cameras are up, said Jane Wankmiller, director of FROST. The exterior of the on-site building should be completed by the end of the week. The outdoor part of the facility will be finished by the end of the semester and the lab will be finished in April or May, Wankmiller said.
She said the developmental process of FROST has gone surprisingly smooth. “There was a tidal wave of things that needed to get done right away,” she said. “But it’s been fun; I’m having a good time doing this.”
The facility, although not yet completed, is already drawing in a number of prospective forensic anthropology students, who will be able to extensively study the bodies.
“It’s really neat,” Wankmiller said. “We’ve got seven new people who said they came here because they heard about this facility.”
Once completed, students will be able to use FROST to complete senior projects, work with their professors on research and process the remains on site.
“I think it’s a great opportunity. It’s the first cold weather facility of its kind,” said junior Abby Mier, double major in anthropology and environmental science. “Doing it up here, the decomposition process is interrupted with freezing and all sorts of stuff and crazy Michigan weather. Being involved in that project can really promote your future endeavors.”
The remains will come from people who have donated their bodies to the facility. At least 15 people of different backgrounds have asked to be donors so far.
“They all have a story which I really enjoy,” Wankmiller said. “Some are scientists who say they want to contribute to science, and some have worked in the criminal justice field and they want to contribute to forensic science in particular because of some aspect of their career that really made a difference to them.”
“Some want to have a natural treatment after death and be able to give something back indefinitely instead of being buried and forgotten.”
A majority of the interested donors are of an older generation, and are in relatively perfect health, Wankmiller said. The youngest donor is in their 50s.
“I think [donation] is really neat. It’s a big commitment for both moral reasons for some people and religious,” Mier said. “To commit your body, especially to something like this, it’s not like donating it to somebody who needs the bones. It’s donating essentially so other people can study it, and that’s pretty crazy.”
Donors have to fill out comprehensive paperwork about their health and social history, and provide photos for reference, Wankmiller said. Next of kin are also able to donate their family member’s body by filling out paperwork.
Once the bodies are at the funeral home, they will get picked up, taken to FROST, studied and photographed, and then placed outside. Once placed outside, students will study the decomposition of the bodies in a cold climate with freezing and thawing cycles. They will collect data, take pictures, document the bodies’ appearance and analyze the data using the standardized score to make it comparable.
In addition to studying the decomposition of bodies, students will study which rodents and insects are attracted to the bodies and how vegetation will change over time, Wankmiller said.
Bodies will be placed in a cage to prevent larger animals and predators from scavenging the body so the bodies stay intact, Wankmiller said. The bodies will not be moved other than to collect samples.
“It’s very real-world experience, but I’m hoping [students] get a sense of the human aspect of it,” Wankmiller said. “It is a donor program, these are real people. These are people’s relatives and loved ones that are going to be out there and I think it will be a good education in seeing that our research subjects aren’t just objects—that there’s a bigger picture.”
The facility will give NMU a chance to expand on a lot of collaborative research between departments, Wankmiller said. The sociology/anthropology department is working with the chemistry and biology, departments along with law enforcement.