Science Book a Day Interviews Elizabeth Murray

elizabeth-murraySpecial thanks to Elizabeth Murray for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Forensic Identification: Putting a Name and Face on Death

Dr. Elizabeth A. Murray is a forensic anthropologist and also Professor of Biology at the College of Mount St. Joseph, where she teaches doctoral-level human gross anatomy and undergraduate-level anatomy and physiology, as well as forensic science. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from the College of Mount St. Joseph and her master’s degree in anthropology and Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Studies in Human Biology from the University of Cincinnati. – From The Great Courses

#1 – What was the impetus for Forensic Identification? Why write a book on forensic science for kids?

This is my second book with connections to forensic science for a young adult audience.  The first, “Death: Corpses, Cadavers, and Other Grave Matters”, was published in 2010.  It is about the science of death, and contains interviews with people whose lives intersect with death, but it also includes some forensics.  For the second book, however, I wanted to get more specific regarding how science helps forensic investigators establish the identity of the unknown dead.  For almost five years, I’ve worked with the U.S. National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (, and have a particular interest in helping resolve these types of cold cases.  “Forensic Identification: Putting a Name and Face on Death” is a general overview of how scientists identify unknown people, essentially using an approach that takes readers from the outside of the body to the inside of the body.  Chapters look at aspects of our skin, bones and teeth, and then finally to the cellular aspects of human identification.

Having been a forensic scientist since 1986, I like to say, “I was forensic before it was cool.”  I always intended to write science books for young people as a retirement project, but after being invited to author the first book about death, I got an earlier start on science writing for students than I had expected.  I’m still a long way from the end of my career, I hope, but have started down the road of writing for a young audience, and am definitely enjoying it.  Reading books about science was very inspirational to me as a young girl, so I aspire to pass some of that interest to the world’s future scientists through my own writing.

#2 – How did you come to choose the 8 ‘case files’ you chose to present in the book?

To find stories that would illustrate the various topics covered, I modified some of my own cases.  The “case files” approach allows readers to review scenarios about unknown bodies discovered in various settings, and then learn about the science that would be used to help investigators identify the remains, before hearing the outcome of the cases at the end of the chapter.  Some of the scenarios are quite grizzly and horrific, but when bodies are unidentifiable, it’s never pleasant.  I chose cases that would show the breadth of the challenges we face when trying to give names and faces back to the unknown dead.

#3 – There are many photos and illustrations throughout the book. How did these images (at times gruesome) add to the book?

I was only marginally involved in choosing illustrations and photos for the book.  That was a well-done job on the part of those at Lerner Publishing.  Personally, when I saw the selections the publisher chose, I was a bit surprised at how graphic some of the images were, but I trusted the experts at Lerner, as they are experienced publishers for a young adult audience.  There were a few instances in which I thought a different illustration or photo would better depict an aspect of the text, and the company readily complied.  As for the captions, I was very involved in writing or editing those, and believe descriptions of the illustrations are critical for a full understanding of what is seen in each image.  Some of the concepts are much easier to comprehend with the assistance of an illustration, particularly since human identification is still based on what we see; whether a tattoo, an x-ray, or a DNA profile.

#4 – What has the response been to the book from adults and kids?

There has been a very positive reaction to this book.  I’ve received many emails from students and adults alike expressing appreciation for the unique style of the book, given it is the only case-based approach of its kind for young readers of forensics.  Students have said it helped them connect on a deeper level with the types of forensic investigations they often see depicted on television.  Teachers have written that it has added to discussions in their classes, and adults have commented that they, too, have found the material enlightening and a good basic overview of some complex topics. Forensic Identification was named one of the “Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students” by the U.S. National Science Teachers Association’s Children’s Book Council in 2013, which is very gratifying.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books you can tell us about?

Currently I’m finishing my second video series for The Teaching Company.  The first set of 36 half-hour lectures is a general overview of forensic science, called “Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works.”  This second will be filmed in May of 2014 and is a series of 24 half-hour video segments about some of history’s most notorious forensic cases, but it also includes some lesser-known investigations with particularly interesting twists.  In addition, I’m completing my third young adult book for Lerner Publishing; this one is about how forensic science is used to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted of serious crimes.  Both of these exciting projects, currently in progress, should be released later this year.

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