“Hey, we’ve got bodies here. We want to know how long ago they were killed. What do I need to send you?”
These are the types of questions forensic anthropologist and professor in the Department of Forensic Science at VCU, Tal Simmons, Ph.D., is used to answering. As a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) On-Call Scientists initiative, she has volunteered her time over the last year to human rights organizations in need of her help as an expert in decomposition, human identification, and trauma.
A recent reevaluation of the program found that human rights practitioners needed urgent questions to be answered in real-time, so the AAAS formed the On-Call Scientists Hotline to provide round-the-clock expert advice to respond to time-sensitive questions. Simmons was invited to become a member of the hotline based on her exemplary service as an On-Call Scientist volunteer in the past.
As previously reported by VCU News, Simmons was partnered with Amnesty International, an international human rights watchdog organization, through the On-Call Scientist program to assist in their investigations of atrocities committed in a Nigerian detention center, which killed 149 people in 2016. Since then she’s collaborated with Amnesty on a number of human rights investigations across the world including in Nigeria, Sudan, Syria, Egypt, and Myanmar.
“I get a huge amount of satisfaction doing what I really like to do best, which is to work within that sort of framework with NGOs. These are real issues that are of significant global importance,” said Simmons.
On-Call Scientists work remotely to advise human rights organizations on the ground, and over the last year Amnesty International has been sending photos and videos of skeletal remains, bodies, torture victims, and open air crime scenes to Simmons for analysis.
“The problem we had was a lot of the times the images that were sent were not really showing what needed to be seen, or were not of sufficient quality, to give them NGOs on the ground the answers they needed” Simmons said.
To solve this problem, Simmons collaborated with Amnesty and applied for a grant from the American Academy for Forensic Sciences’ Human Rights and Humanitarian Resource Center to fund training sessions for their investigative teams. The grant funded two training sessions designed to teach representatives of Amnesty how to properly collect data for forensic scientists like Simmons to analyze. The first session was held in Mexico In late August, and the second happened at the end of October in London.
“I was able to present some of this work in our department seminar a couple of months ago now and now many of the MS students grasp that the applications of forensic science goes beyond the boundaries of the United States, and how it can be used in other ways,” Simmons said.
Simmons has worked at the intersection of forensic anthropology and human rights investigations since 1997, when she became the Director of the Forensic Monitoring Project for Physicians for Human Rights in Bosnia. Since then she’s worked as forensic consultant to several human rights organizations across the world, most recently developing postmortem database forms for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Though she has yet to receive any calls from the Hotline, Simmons says she is ready and eager to offer her expertise when the time comes.
“I would much rather ultimately be involved in applying my knowledge to human rights issues. It makes a difference, or one hopes that it does,” said Simmons.
Written by Megan Schiffres