Bone Camp: Discovering the World of Forensic Anthropology

Campers will learn how forensic anthropologists "read the bones" to create a biological profile and establish an identification. They'll also use plaster skulls and clay to "build a face."
May 30, 2012
Plaster casts for Bone Camp
Plaster casts for Bone Camp

What did you want to be when you grew up? If forensic anthropologist wasn't on your list, it could be because you didn't attend Arizona Youth University's "Bone Camp" with "camp counselors" Maria H. Czuzak and Jared Alvarado.

Forensic anthropologists help identify otherwise unidentifiable human skeletal remains. There are many career possibilities in the field, says Czuzak, and she wanted to provide an opportunity for high school students to be introduced to them. "Our department already offered a pre-med summer camp; this was something different." The first Bone Camp was offered in June 2011 and it filled up.

Czuzak is an anatomist and forensic anthropologist with the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine (formerly the Department of Cell Biology and Anatomy) at the UA College of Medicine – Tucson. She earned her master's and doctorate from the UA and has been with the College of Medicine since 1991, teaching at various levels and in various fields, from undergraduate anthropology and anatomy and physiology courses to medical and pharmacy school anatomy courses. After receiving her doctorate in 1998, she became a UA faculty member. In August 2001, she became a member of a federal disaster mortuary team that deployed her for mortuary operations in response to emergencies including Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake.

As a child, she always wanted to be a surgeon. However, during her second year of college, mass graves were discovered in Argentina of "los desaparecidos" ("the disappeared"). She was drawn to the opportunity to "bring home people's loved ones so there could be closure."

Czuzak learned the skill of facial reconstruction during 10 years of graduate training in biological anthropology with a specialty in forensic anthropology and a minor in anatomy. In preparation for Bone Camp, nearly two dozen plaster skulls have been cast for campers to "build a face" upon with clay. They'll learn how forensic anthropologists "read the bones" to create a biological profile and establish an identification of the deceased.

Campers also will be introduced to face development, facial asymmetry, facial feature variation, recovery techniques, forensic pathology and techniques for circumstantial and positive identification. In one activity, students will use a classroom version of a sketch artist computer program similar to that used by police investigators to develop composites of suspects; one group of campers will create sketches that will be used by another group to pick out the "perpetrator" from a lineup.

Careers in bioarchaeology and museum studies also will be explored during a visit to the Arizona State Museum, where Assistant Curator of Bioarchaeology James Watson will discuss his research that examines health and disease in prehistoric populations through their skeletal remains.

Alvarado will serve as Bone Camp co-instructor for the first time. He joined the College of Medicine's Willed Body Program in May 2010 and is an anatomical preparator, funeral director and embalmer with the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. He received an associate's degree in mortuary science from The Dallas Institute of Funeral Services and has been in the funeral industry for nearly 10 years.

Bone Camp participants will get hands-on experience as they are introduced to skeletal and facial anatomy. "They'll get a feel for the amount of variation in soft tissue features – lips, noses, eyes, hair, moles, wrinkles," says Alvarado. He'll discuss how as an embalmer he reconstructs these features, and also discuss careers in mortuary sciences.

"The take-home lesson is that by having a broader perspective, students interested in forensic anthropology may find they can do this type of work in a variety of venues or may even find a new path such as pathology, plastic surgery, disaster medicine, emergency management, mortuary sciences or other related forensic discipline" says Czuzak.

Bone Camp is for high school students entering grades nine through 12. For more information, visit