When Florida Gulf Coast University graduate student Delanie Fether was young, her inquisitive mind was captivated by “Bones,” the long-running TV series.
Fether watched in awe as forensic anthropologist Temperance “Bones” Brennan effortlessly read clues from victims’ bones – usually when the remains were so badly decomposed or burned that typical identification methods were worthless. Fether loved the way Brennan worked with police to serve justice while using her formidable forensic knowledge.
Though she didn’t know it at the time, Fether’s fascination influenced her journey at FGCU and the hands-on experience she’s getting working alongside Professor Heather Walsh-Haney, chair of the forensic studies program and an in-demand expert in the field.
She initially majored in forensic studies, then added a criminal justice major and an anthropology minor. Through her undergraduate internship, she observed the in-depth, hands-on nature of the forensic studies Human Identity Trauma Analysis (HITA) program. After receiving dual bachelor’s degrees in forensic studies and criminal justice in 2020, she applied to the master’s program.
She assists Walsh-Haney in the HITA Lab with the examination of human skeletal remains, including photography, radiography, metric assessment and skeletal inventories. These experiences in the laboratory often begin in the field. Through her mentorship with Walsh-Haney, she interfaces with crime-scene analysts and forensic pathologists when she helps with the recovery of human remains from crime scenes.
Her experiences involving forensic casework informed her graduate research that focuses on identifying postmortem changes to human remains that are donated and prepared for medical study, known as anatomical dissection.
“She is unafraid about processing the anatomical donors for whom she fingerprints, weighs and photographs,” Walsh-Haney says. “She works alongside me and the laboratory coordinator and technician. She may help sift soil or take notes and follow my directions at all times. She records the anatomical marks that appear on bones as a result of anatomical donation (scalpel marks). She learns to treat all remains ethically from her training with me.”
Ethical treatment, Fether explains, involves “documenting everything on forms for quality assurance and identifying the chain of custody from where it enters our lab to transporting the remains back to the district we are working with.” They work with the remains with ethics in relation to HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) privacy considerations and the Daubert standard, which applies to evidence admissible in expert witness testimony.
Fether credits Walsh-Haney with not only stoking her interest but taking her to the highest level of expertise and experience.
“She is exceptional at what she does and is always trying to help us learn through hands-on work,” Fether says. “She has so much knowledge. It’s hard not to learn something from her.
“I think what captivates me about this field is being able to help individuals in any way that I can who may not have a voice anymore. The decedents that we work with are not able to tell their own story anymore, so if we can help to identify them, then maybe it can bring closure to a family.”
Fether is grateful for opportunities to grow. Last summer, she spent almost three months on the Mediterranean island country of Cyprus, where she conducted osteology research and attended training workshops in skeletal pathology.
“This experience meant the world to me,” she says. “It’s not every day that you get to work with those type of remains. I never thought I would have the opportunity to travel overseas and do what I love.”
In fact, her TV-inspired interest in her chosen field was all rather vicarious until Fether ventured into a forensic science class at Land O’ Lakes High School and experienced the inspiring teaching methods of Amanda Faint.
“She was amazing,” Fether says. “She facilitated my interest in this area and pushed me to do better consistently.”
Faint encouraged her to pursue a forensics degree. Fether, who earlier had considered a career in marine or environmental science, chose FGCU based on its sustainability goals.
She’s still fascinated with crime-scene TV shows and watches reruns of “Bones,” but now – with an eye sharpened by her studies and field work – some inaccuracies become obvious to her.
“Dr. Brennan in the show will look at one characteristic and make a determination on age, sex, ancestry, etc.,” she says, “but typically you use multiple methods, and they often have statistics included. And it takes almost no time in the show to run fingerprints, when in reality it can take a long time. But it’s still enjoyable to watch.”