Jane Wankmiller is the new director of Northern Michigan University’s Forensic Research Outdoor Station (FROST), one of only eight such facilities worldwide and the first to study human decomposition in a cold climate. FROST will be complemented by a forensic anthropology laboratory and a human osteological collection. Wankmiller will oversee both components while developing courses for a bachelor’s degree concentration in forensic anthropology.
Wankmiller previously worked in three capacities for the Michigan State Police (MSP), most recently as the unidentified remains coordinator in the Missing Persons Coordination Unit. She also conducted facial recognition searches to aid investigations through the Digital Analysis Identification Section and served as a forensic artist, drawing composites of suspects based on witness/victim interviews and reconstructing faces of unidentified decedents to help identify them. Wankmiller is a certified death investigator. She has worked on nearly 200 cases involving all manners of death.
“I was proud of the work I was doing for the MSP, but I was fascinated by FROST and viewed it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she said. “I also liked the challenge of building a forensic anthropology program around that. The university seems very forward-thinking. When you couple that with how supportive the faculty and administration are of undergraduate student research, everything came together and convinced me this is where I should be.”
The research coming out of FROST will add to what is already known about cold-climate decomposition. NMU students will assist Wankmiller in conducting these pioneering studies in varying conditions and scenarios, giving them unique opportunities they could not access at other institutions. FROST will operate as a willed body program, in which individuals express their advance wishes to donate their bodies to the facility.
“Ideally, the person will come in to fill out the necessary paperwork and provide a social and medical history,” Wankmiller said. “This will not be an alternative for unidentified or unclaimed situations. And it will be different from medical schools that cremate and return the remains to family or hold a burial ceremony. We’re going to ask that our donors be forever donors. They will become part of the osteology collection for future research by forensic anthropologists and other scientists.”
FROST will offer specialized training and research opportunities for law enforcement, government agencies, military personnel and visiting scientists. Wankmiller said she is eager to establish those collaborative relationships. Her previous experience will be helpful in doing that.
“I’m familiar with the personnel and language, how cases work and the sensitivity required,” she said. “Having this facility in Michigan will improve training and continuing education for law enforcement—particularly canine teams involved in search and recovery operations.”
Wankmiller is employing an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the FROST environment and how it will impact decomposition. She has recruited a soil scientist to help analyze the ground chemistry and composition. Wankmiller said she would like to test the ability of ground-penetrating radar to detect clandestine burials. She has also talked to biologists who specialize in small animal scavengers, birds and insects. A fellow archaeologist will conduct shovel tests to determine if there are cultural resources on the property.
Wankmiller holds a doctorate in physical anthropology and a master’s in forensic science from Michigan State University.