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Edinboro University student and faculty member conduct cutting-edge forensic research

​Aided by advanced technology and guided by knowledge of human anatomy, osteology and physical anthropology, Edinboro University student Megan Kunst is conducting research that aims to help standardize methods of forensic facial reconstruction for use in the identification of human remains.

Her work has sparked the interest of the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC), which has invited Kunst to present at its annual conference, Oct. 12-16, in Seattle. It will be her second presentation at an NCHC conference. The first, in 2014, resulted in a first-place award in the category of Visual Arts for her research project “Using Mathematical Perspective,” which studied the relationship between linear perspective, optics and art through the use of mathematical formulas.

Kunst’s latest work also grew from her studies in the field of visual arts at Edinboro.

“I became aware of forensic facial reconstruction during an anatomy class taught by Professor Michelle Vitali,” Kunst said. “During class, she talked about her experience with the process and it sounded like a fascinating way to integrate my passion for art with my love of science.”

Vitali, of the EU Art Department, is Kunst’s supervisor on the project. Also working with her as advisors are Dr. Lenore Barbian of the Criminal Justice, Anthropology, and Forensic Studies Department and Professor Peter Kuvshinikov of the Physics and Technology Department.

“I created two 3D facial reconstructions of the same skull by adding clay to a 3D-printed human skull,” Kunst explained. “The skull I used was printed from scans provided by the Smithsonian Institution, which also provided cadaver photographs to compare the results of my reconstructions.”

One reconstruction was completed using the American method (using tissue depth markers) and the other using the Russian method (constructing the muscles of the face). Kunst then conferred with her faculty supervisor to develop a list of areas of higher and lower confidence in the results of each facial reconstruction, leading to a conclusion about which areas of each method are more reliable.

“The best practices protocol developed during this study can aid the standardization of the field and improve the facial reconstructions done by forensic artists, improving the likelihood of identification of unknown individuals,” Kunst said. “I like that facial reconstruction may allow me to, in the future, use art to help people find resolution and give names to the unidentified deceased.”

Kunst is pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts with concentrations in illustration and painting, and a bachelor’s degree in art education. The Butler, Pa., native is an active scholar in the Edinboro University Honors Program, which provides opportunities for high-achieving students to pursue special projects with faculty mentors such as the forensic facial reconstruction research.

The exploration of best practices in three-dimensional facial reconstruction is a continuation of research that Vitali presented in 2014 at the international conference of the American Academy of Forensics. That work was titled 3D Facial Approximation: Lingering Problems and Improving Outcomes.

“It was extremely well-received,” Vitali said, “so I wanted to expand it with three goals: researching a wider range of problematic aspects of 3D facial reconstruction, improving the training and education of practitioners in the forensic arts, and improving the training and education of law enforcement and the general public so that they understand what they are seeing when they view forensic facial reconstructions. These are not portraits.”

She said Kunst’s research will aid in achieving her goal of improving the training of forensic art practitioners. Vitali’s further research will include collaboration with her Edinboro University colleagues in the fields of biology and psychology as well as with various law enforcement agencies and coroners.

Vitali teaches human anatomy, scientific illustration, painting and drawing at Edinboro, and earned national recognition in 2015 for her work creating a pair of three-dimensional sculptures of an embalmed, severed head that was found on the side of the road in rural Beaver County, Pa.

She is one of the founding experts of the Edinboro Institute for Forensic Sciences, which was launched in 2015 to provide excellence in undergraduate education and training in the forensic sciences by drawing on faculty from diverse academic disciplines, including criminal justice, anthropology and art. Kunst is one of the institute’s first student scholars. he is one of the founding experts of the Edinboro Institute for Forensic Sciences, which was launched in 2015 to provide excellence in undergraduate education and training in the forensic sciences by drawing on faculty from diverse academic disciplines, including criminal justice, anthropology and art. Kunst is one of the institute’s first student scholars.

Their work together, like that of many forensic artists, is being undertaken with the ultimate goal of creating new and innovative ways of generating investigatory leads for police.

More information about the Edinboro University Institute for Forensic Sciences, visit www.edinboro.edu/ifs.