Fingerprints, blood stains and Sherlock Holmes

Mungo award winner mixes science, fiction to help students examine the past

Carlina de la Cova has always had a student-centered approach to teaching — a philosophy that encourages learning by both the students and the professor.

A forensic anthropologist, de la Cova understands that students enter her classroom with different backgrounds and life experiences.

“I acknowledge that on the first day. I say, ‘Look around. We all don’t look the same, do we? We perceive the world differently,” she says. “ ‘I don’t see you as these empty vessels that need to be filled, you’re already filled with information. I’m just teaching you to interpret that information and understand the information I present to you.’ ”

De la Cova, or “Dr. DLC” as her students call her, has taught a wide range of courses in her seven years at Carolina, from introductory biological anthropology and African-American studies to courses that address issues of race and medicine. She has introduced three new courses to the university’s undergraduate curriculum.

Those include classes such as, “Medical Experimentation and the Black Body,” which unravels complex issues and examines how ethical questions have been answered through history. “Medicine, Disease and Slavery,” one of the first courses de la Cova created at USC, looks at black health through the lenses of history, anthropology and culture, with the class able to study the remains of slaves and hear both slave and slaveholder voices from the time period.

Her favorite course — “The Forensics of Sherlock Holmes” — allows students to learn forensic science methods and history through Sherlock Holmes stories. A self-described Holmesian, de la Cova says the fictional private detective comes up in nearly every juncture of her life. She always loved reading mysteries — from Nancy Drew to Stephen King — but it’s the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle that stayed with her, inspired her and informed her teaching.

She was first introduced to Sherlock Holmes in the sixth grade, when “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” was part of her assigned reading. She was immediately captured by how Holmes could see patterns and link events.

“Then, when I was 12 and 13, those turbulent teen years when you’re trying to find your identity, there was something about him that stuck with me,” she says. “It’s the ability to observe and interpret so you understand your environment and understand where people are coming from, but also his sense of justice and his belief system.

“As I developed into a scholar, that stuck with me. As a forensic anthropologist, I study the dead — sometimes those who disappeared, sometimes victims of foul play. His concept of justice stayed with me. I live by that principle of justice and restoring voices to those who have lost their voice.”

In the classroom, she builds on students’ interest in forensic anthropology that has been stoked by CSI-type TV shows. Students learn about forensic science through fingerprint analysis, blood splatter examinations and by reading Sherlock Holmes stories. The course is a popular one, quickly filling its 70 seats. Along with anthropology majors, de la Cova’s classes appeal to students studying criminal justice, public health and other areas.

“One of my goals in teaching has always been to make students lifelong readers, whether of anthropology or history,” she says. “I tell them, ‘You guys are the future. When you leave the university and go into the world, you have the option to make change and make a difference. Take this knowledge you learn with you.’ It’s all about empowering and valuing their perspective.”

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