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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Clea Koff

Clea Koff -- Leading Forensic Anthropologist

Often rated among the top 10 forensic science experts today. Became internationally known for her work with the United Nations in conducting forensic investigations of mass grave genocide killings in Rwanda and the Balkans -- and through such scientific evidence, helped bring perpetrators of such killings to justice, including former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes

Forensic science has spawned a number of different sub-fields, and one of those is forensic anthropology, which is the scientific application of physical anthropology to the legal process of identifying skeletal and other human remains and cause of death.

Clea Koff, although only 31 years old, is one of the leading forensic anthropologists in the world. She particularly became known for her work with the United Nations (U.N.) in investigating genocidal killings and "crimes against humanity" cases where the remains of victims (often found in mass graves) were in advanced stages of decomposition.

Known as the "Bone Woman" for using the power of forensics to identify these victims and bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice, this British-born American scientist was only a 23-year-old graduate student studying prehistoric skeletons in the safe confines of Berkeley, California when she, with a small team of other forensic scientists, was chosen by the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal to go to war-torn Rwanda, Africa. The assignment? To investigate and unearth the physical evidence of mass grave genocide and crimes against humanity that had been reported throughout that country.

Her effectiveness in Rwanda led to other grueling assignments with the U.N., namely investigating "crimes against humanity" mass deaths in Bosnia, Serbia, Coatia and Kosovo. She chronicled her experiences in all these episodes in her 2004 best-selling book "The Bone Woman: Among the Dead in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Croatia" (published by Random House).

Born in England in 1972, Clea is the daughter of a Tanzanian mother and an American father, both documentary filmmakers who focus on human rights issues. Her parents, in their work as filmmakers, took Clea and her older brother, Kimera, with them around the world. As a result, Clea spent her childhood in England, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, and the United States. By the time she was a teenager Clea had decided on a career in human osteology (the study bones), which she began first in California.

Her career began with a book that her father gave her during college freshman year: "Witnesses from the Grave: The Stories Bones Tell" by Christopher Joyce and Eric Stover. Reading it, she learned about Argentina's first human-rights forensic team, who in 1984 dug up and identified the remains of "the disappeared" who had been abducted during the military junta of the 1970s and 1980s.

"I basically carried that book around all the time for years," Clea recalls. "As a grad student in forensic anthropology she worked in Arizona's Pima County medical examiner's office where she studied the bones of unclaimed deceased persons to determine identity and cause of death. She left for her first assignment with the U.N. in 1996.

Why She's Important: Clea Koff is one of the leading forensic anthropologists today, and is perhaps best known for using forensic technology to investigate some of the most gruesome and widespread cases of genocide and crimes against humanity in recent history. Through her painstaking work, not only were the bodies of the victims exhumed, physically identified and the cause of death determined before the remains were united with victims' families, many of the perpetrators of these killings were also brought to justice. For instance, by 2004, nineteen people—including former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic—had been convicted or awaited trial in U.N. international criminal tribunals using evidence she and her colleagues had unearthed.

The job of Clea and her team was made all the more challenging by the conditions they worked under. In the city of Kibuye in Rwanda, for instance, she and colleagues excavated a grave site (using such tools as pickaxes, shovels or trowels -- and even chopsticks in more delicate situations) that held nearly 500 bodies, most of them women and children. These victims were a small contingent of the 250,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus who had disappeared from that city alone in the first three months of the 1994 genocide, and a fraction of the several thousand killed at the Kibuye church in a single incident.

Education: Clea earned her Bachelor's of Science degree in Anthropology from Stanford University, and began her Master's degree in Forensic Anthropology at the University of Arizona, completing this degree in 1999 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Other Achievements: In keeping with her desire to use her forensic expertise to identify missing deceased persons, Clea and a colleague recently founded the Missing Persons Identification Resource Center (MPID) based in Los Angeles, California. Through this center they aim to help identify the more than 4,000 unclaimed deceased bodies stored in county coroners' facilities across the state -- some dating as far back as the 1970s. "I really want to get those bodies back to their families, and I want to do it working with the families," she says. Clea is also the author of several books of fiction based on forensics.