Career Spotlight is a series of interviews with anthropologists connected to the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to share insights, knowledge, and expertise about career opportunities, growth, and development.
After graduating from Texas State University with an MA in Forensic Anthropology, Katharine Pope worked as a Medicolegal Death Investigator and Forensic Anthropologist in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware medical examiners’ offices and for the Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team (DMORT). She is the Chair of the Society of Forensic Anthropologists (SOFA) board of directors and a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). She assisted in the development of the Forensic Anthropology Database for Assessing Methods Accuracy, a community-wide collective resource for case data to observe trends in biological profile estimations and method preferences. She created and implemented continuing education lectures and open forum discussions on topics important to the Forensic Anthropology community, such as ancestry and curation of human remains. She volunteered with Operation Identification excavating unidentified migrants on the Texas/Mexico border. She is currently the mid-Atlantic Regional Program Coordinator for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). She also pursues a passion project in her spare time – developing peer support programs for forensic practitioners. Learn more at www.forensicsfound.com or follow her at @forensics_found and @responders_lastcall.
1.What made you decide to choose anthropology as a career path, and specifically your specialty?
I’ve known I wanted to be in forensic science since I was middle school-aged. My parents are both responders and never shied away from talking about blood and guts at the dinner table (you know, the things that make us human!). When school was out, my dad would take me to work with him and I’d walk around downtown DC, try to get into the FBI building, or sit in the Emergency Department and watch it him. One day, EMS rolled in a patient who attempted suicide by ingesting a toxic seed – with him, they brought a thick packet of research he prepared in order to end his life. I was stunned! All that time and effort could have gone to anything, and this guy chose to spend it on how to best kill himself?! My mind was blown, and I was hooked on “the abnormal.” What in the world is this death thing? Why don’t we know more about it? Why are we scared of it? Why do people do the things they do? Why don’t we all do those things?
I read everything I could get my hands on that had the word “forensic” in the title – William Maples’ books, Dead Men Do Tell Tales, every single Kathy Reich and Patricia Cornwell novel (until I knew better), anything by anyone calling themselves an FBI profiler. My mom took me to a lecture about JonBenet Ramsey, and my passion grew. My high school offered a Psychology class and I ate it up. I was one of very few freshman at Colorado College who declared their major first thing (and actually stuck with it all four years!). But once I took an anthropology class - cultural anthro actually - I added a double major and never looked back.
2. What does a typical workday look like for you in your chosen career?
As a death investigator, there was no typical day in my career. We waited for calls to come in and then interviewed police officers, nurses, doctors, families, and funeral directors to gather information on the decedent and the circumstances of their death. Sometimes the call could be released for the primary care doctor to sign the death certificate, and the funeral home could remove the decedent. But sometimes, the case required additional information or a scene visit. When I travelled to the scene - which could be anywhere (inside, outside, on a ship, highway, in a fire scene, aircraft accident, ANYWHERE!) - I would interview more people, take photographs, and make notes about what I saw. I examined the body to ensure that the stories I was hearing matched what I saw. I removed the decedent from the scene and transported them to the medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.
3. What is a piece of advice you would share with job seekers or offer a new anthropologist just beginning their career?
Use the beginning of your career to try out new things, new jobs, and new interests! You have your whole life to work so you might as well find something you love. For me, it took ruling out many other possibilities to know which was right for me in the end.
4. What do you consider one of your career successes? How did you achieve it?
Almost three years ago, I was selected for a position with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), which was a huge honor. I work on cold cases full-time now and use my experience and education with forensic anthropology to help direct and advise cold case investigators nationwide.
5. What do you consider a challenge you’ve faced in your career? How did you overcome it?
I experienced burnout and developed PTSD as a result of my job. On the surface, I felt alone and embarrassed that I was struggling. But once I started talking about my experiences and the difficulties I was facing, I learned that there are many other people like me who struggle in the job. I don’t want anyone to feel alone so I created a business called Forensics Found www.forensicsfound.com to help other responders confront and manage stress, burnout, and other tough situations in our difficult jobs.
6. Is there a particular area of anthropology you enjoy working with, such as public, private, or non-governmental sectors? Why?
I knew from the beginning of my career that I did not want to teach anthropology but that I wanted to do anthropology. I tried out many different kinds of jobs - I worked in the field as a crime scene investigator with a police department. I worked behind the scenes as a researcher searching for missing and killed service personnel from WWII. I also trained death investigators for a grant funded project. When I finally landed in a role as a death investigator and forensic anthropologist at a medical examiner, I knew I was in the right place. For me, working in public service has been the most rewarding part of my career because I get to use my experience and education to help my community.
You can also check out Katharine Pope's segment on forensic anthropology as part of our Captivating and Curious Careers series on YouTube!