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  • Alyse Gray

Adventures at the American Academy of Forensic Science Conference 2019

Every year I attend the American Academy of Forensic Science conference, a massive interdisciplinary gathering of forensic professionals. It's nothing short of a smorgasbord of learning. This year's lectures included titles such as "Look in the Freezer-A Story of a Murder," "The Psychopathic Profile of Cannibals", "Forensic Imaging in Two Cases of Survived Car Surfing in Zurich", "Assessing the Construction and Performance Potential of Improvised Hand Grenades," "Cable-tie Neck Ligatures," "Three Attorneys Participate in Fingerprint Proficiency Testing," and "Elevator Related Deaths." Although the last two are the stuff of nightmares, they do not disappoint.

The conferences are mini-reunions too. I meet up with good friends who trained with me in pathology, then scattered across the country upon graduating. They are a warm and welcoming group of ladies. We always find delicious food to eat and fun things to do no matter where we go. I've also started meeting people through the book writing process. It's neat to be able to get together with some of the people I've interviewed. It's also slightly intimidating, because they are way cooler than me, but I am learning to chill out about it and not be overly concerned with differential achievement levels.

Unfortunately, I am zero chill when it comes to talking to people I've had awkward moments with in the past. Something about the past sticks with you. I'd really like to learn how to overcome this. I think the secret may be to have so many other things going on that you can focus on something else besides your awkwardness. The more you think about it, the awkward-er you get.

I had one such awkward moment a few years ago when I met Dr. Jan Garavaglia, who is best known for her TV show, Dr. G Medical Examiner. Dr. G has always been one of my heroes and was a big influence on my decision to study pathology. When I met her, I was fangirling so hard that my hands were shaking and she thought I was stalking her.

I noticed that Dr G was attending this year's conference. Friends encouraged me to talk to her again and request an interview for the book, assuring me that she was a down to earth person and probably wouldn't remember me. I rehashed the awkward moments for before, trying to figure out how to do things better this time. I didn't know if I was even going to run into her.

After a riveting lecture on coronary artery stenosis, I went to get some water. Behind me in line...was Dr. G!! I got a drink, then walked away, trying to muster the courage to ask her for an interview. Don't be awkward. Don't be awkward. Don't be awkward. The more I thought about it, the worse it was going to be. I just needed to do it. I turned around, took a deep breath, walked up to Dr. G, and introduced myself. I tried to make an elevator pitch about the book, but messed it all up and blurted out, "I met you before but I promise I'm not stalking you." Dr. G said she didn't remember me and was incredibly gracious the whole time I was stumbling over my words. I finally asked if I could interview her. She hesitated for a second, but then agreed to do one! I couldn't believe she agreed! That was very kind. I have nothing but respect for her. Some people value cleverness. I value kindness.

Later that day and throughout the week, I would sit in some of the same lecture rooms as Dr. G, occasionally nodding when walking by her. like a NORMAL PERSON! I didn't feel awkward any more. Maybe, just maybe I have purged the awkwardness from my system.

Going forward, I have decided to do more stuff in addition to the book for reasons of awkwardness reduction, and will be working on some non-profit ideas, including the cancer charity and a potential cadaver dog training material resource site. I met a cadaver dog trainer at the conference who mentioned the lack of training materials for dogs. Most cadaver dog trainers are strictly unpaid volunteers. Cadaver bones are some of the only training items that can be purchased online, but they are expensive. Amputated legs are apparently great for training. Hospitals everywhere have the potential to supply these to the doggos at no cost if consent can be obtained from the patient. Hospitals and patients just have to know that this is a thing, and be put in touch with the cadaver dog groups. Perhaps I can create a space for that. If not me, then someone needs to, because we can't just keep throwing out people's legs if they are able to be used for something good like this. Pathology departments across the country routinely incinerate limbs after keeping them for 30 days. I believe many people would be happy to donate their limbs to a good cause like this instead.

I've emailed the Scientific Working Group for Dogs to get further guidance. If they will assist me, hopefully I can have the site up and running in a few months after I get the book proposal done.

It's been an amazing week, full of ideas and learning.

The one thing that really bothered me this week was hearing a talk about women in forensic anthropology who had experienced sexual harassment at these conferences. It wasn't the first time I've heard this. Last year, several women from different disciplines told me they had also been sexually harassed, and that harassment was commonplace among their peers. They couldn't even trust their male professors. This made me so sad. In pathology, women are respected as much as men for the most part. It disturbs me that women in other forensic science disciplines do not get that same respect. Forensic science is one of the foundations of criminal justice. If our scientists cannot respect their female colleagues, can they respect female crime victims? The systemic consequences of that potential bias are frightening. I truly hope that as more women enter the field, sexual harassment issues will decline. It has no place in any scientific discipline.


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