Death Becomes Her
Brittany Walter has always been interested in death. “Actually, it goes beyond interest and fascination,” says or said the USC doctoral student. “I’ve always had an understanding of death.
“It started when I was in seventh grade,” she explains. “I read mostly forensic crime novels, like ‘Death du Jour,’ ‘Break No Bones’ and ‘Bones to Ashes.’ I would say that I was definitely an oddball in middle school.”
By the time she entered college, there was no question that the Florida native would major in anthropology and focus her studies on the secrets of human remains. Her curiosity led to conducting undergraduate research in a medical examiner’s office, where she compared cranial shapes and thicknesses.
She remembers the first time she saw an autopsy. “The smell is like no other,” she said. “It’s sharp, pungent and sweet all at the same time. And you instinctively know it’s a dead person and not an animal, even without seeing the body.”
As a graduate student at the University of Central Florida, Brittany conducted further research, this time utilizing global positioning systems and ground penetrating radar for mapping and locating body parts. She also had the opportunity to work a very high profile crime case.
“My advisor was the forensic recovery expert during the Casey Anthony trail,” Brittany said. “We assisted the medical examiner, and he testified at the trial.”
Currently working toward a Ph.D. in anthropology at USC, Brittany has refocused her area of specialization, moving away from crime scenes to ancient burial sites and causes of death. Her research has taken her to an early Egyptian cemetery and an ancient Mediterranean gravesite in which King Midas is believed to have been buried. There she analyzed ancient skeletal remains to diagnose breast cancer and other deadly diseases.
She’s working closely with USC professor Sharon Dewitte, a biological anthropologist. Dewitte investigates the mortality patterns, demographics and health consequences of medieval plague in Europe, including the Black Death of 1347-1351. What’s more, Brittany teaches in the anthropology’s osteology (bone) lab and is a Presidential Doctoral Fellow.
“Bones are full of information,” she said. “You can tell age and sex. You can tell ancestry. You can tell whether a person was right-handed or left-handed. Bones can reveal certain diseases and how a person might have died.”
By digging through the medical mysteries of the past, Brittany is not only discovering new and fascinating information from history, she is uncovering the diagnostic tools of tomorrow that may some day help solve some of our most challenging health problems.