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Chico State

Alumni of Human Identification Lab Attest to Its Influence

Three searchers crouch through the warped frame of a mobile home.
(Jason Halley / University Photographer)

For nearly 50 years, the Human Identification Laboratory (HIL) has worked to recover missing persons, analyze and identify their bodies, present vital information to resolve criminal cases, and provide closure to families.

Today, what it needs most to continue its critical work is a new facility. While the HIL was state-of-the-art when it opened in the University’s new Plumas Hall in the early 1970s, the decades-old lab has not been upgraded to meet modern demands or its ever-growing caseload, which now tops 100 cases a year.

Funding for a new facility has been included in Governor Gavin Newsom’s May Revise for the California 2023–24 Budget, and alumni of the Chico State anthropology program are adding their voices to the refrain calling on legislators to ensure the line item makes its way to the final budget.

As the only facility in the state that operates as a full-time forensic anthropology laboratory, the HIL led the forensic investigations during the Camp Fire and has conducted over 700 investigations in 47 California counties in the last four years to serve dozens of local, state, and federal law enforcement partners—including the California Office of Emergency Services, the US Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A new facility is imperative to continue its critical work and lasting influence on the field of forensic anthropology across the nation for years to come, say alumni, law enforcement, University administrators, and the HIL faculty and staff.

“It is neither hyperbole nor an understatement to say that the California State University, Chico Human Identification Laboratory is responsible for my current academic career,” said Kate Kolpan (MA, Anthropology, ’09), assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Idaho. “I parlayed my experience at the HIL into a PhD at the University of Florida and a tenure-track job at the University of Idaho where I teach the forensic anthropology methods and techniques I learned at Chico State to my own undergraduate and grad students, and assist law enforcement with human identification throughout the state of Idaho. I have worked with the US military, the FBI, the state police, and local law enforcement agencies to identify the skeletonized remains of missing people, and I would not have been able to do any of that without the skills I learned in the HIL.”

In addition to the lab’s work helping to exhume and identify the skeletonized, burned, and decomposing remains of missing people throughout California, Kolpan said, its isotope lab has been a key player in developing isotope methods to help the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) identify the remains of American service personnel who have died in past conflicts, such as World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

“However, they are providing an incredible service to law enforcement agencies and families with missing loved ones with outdated equipment and inadequate laboratory space,” she said. “Therefore, I strongly urge [legislators] to keep funding for a new HIL facility at Chico State in this year’s budget revision, so that the HIL can continue expanding their services in California and beyond, giving names and faces back to the bodies of the missing.”

Jason Wiersema (MA, Anthropology, ’01) credits his experience as lab manager of the HIL and its casework exposure for accelerating his progress toward a position as a forensic anthropologist. Today, he works as the director of forensic anthropology and emergency management for the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, in Houston, Texas. In addition to the 500 cases his department processes annually, his forensic anthropology expertise led him to work on victim recovery and identification at the World Trade Center site after 9/11, after Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 tsunami in Thailand, and mass graves in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“It has long been that the CSU Chico program has a unique footprint because of its reach beyond the boundaries of the campus,” he said. “I consider this the greatest asset of the program, and would argue that this is an opinion held widely in the field. It is important that the structure and function of the facility is sufficient to continue to facilitate this unique outreach. I hope that serious consideration is given to funding a state-of-the-art facility for a university department with a decades-long reputation for advancing the field of forensic anthropology.”

As an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University, Melanie Beasley (MA, Anthropology, ’08) said she also still uses the casework, skeletal analysis, and ethics she learned during her days with the HIL to guide her research and teaching. When the 2018 Camp Fire became the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history, she was honored to be among the dozens of HIL alumni who returned to Butte County to use their skills to support the recovery and identification of more than 80 victims.

“This experience has proved invaluable to me professionally, both for giving invited academic talks about my experience and the use of the experience as a teaching tool in the classroom. The team effort of the Camp Fire recovery by faculty, staff, students, and alumni is a testament to the dedication of the graduates associated with the Human ID Lab to continued service to California during a disaster,” she said. “The Human ID Lab has had a huge impact on the discipline and served the needs of California on a shoestring budget with outdated facilities for too long. I cannot imagine what the Human ID Lab will be able to accomplish with the new facility.”

Lisa Bright (MA, Anthropology, ’11), who spent several weekends assisting after the Camp Fire, was a student when the HIL responded to one of its first mass disaster scenes, the San Bruno pipeline explosion. She credits her experiences with the lab as foundational for her present-day role as a senior environmental scientist and archaeologist with CalTrans.

“The CSUC HIL faculty, students, and staff have become leaders in their field for disaster recovery services and provide an invaluable service to the people of California. Additionally, the facility is operating at full capacity in terms of space, casework load, and equipment. Supporting the expansion of these services into a new facility allows the CSUC-HIL team to continue to produce highly skilled professionals in their field and continue their impactful and meaningful work for the people of California. This facility and faculty gave me every opportunity to become the scholar and scientist I am today and your support would ensure that their impact on not just the people of California, but the scientific community in general, can continue to grow.”

Rebecca George (MA, Anthropology, ’15) agrees. In her work as forensic anthropology facilities curator and instructor of anthropology at Western Carolina University, where she runs its donated body and decomposition facility, she credits her experience through the HIL and her master’s program at Chico State as the crux of the stories that guide her students on forensic scene analyses.

“The processing and analytical skills gained through the HIL, as well, have shaped how I handle processing shifts within the labs here at WCU,” she said, “In short, I wouldn’t be the instructor I am today without the HIL.”