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Meet the 5 women leading UT's renowned 'Body Farm' research facility

The FAC is led by a team of five forensic anthropologists: Steadman, Davis, Jantz, Devlin, and Vidoli.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee's aptly named Body Farm attracts the morbid curiosity of many across the world, but do you know the faces of the people behind the vital work and research that takes place there?

At the helm of UT's Forensic Anthropology Center are five female forensic anthropologists: Giovanna Vidoli, Joanne Devlin, Dawnie Steadman, Lee Meadows Jantz, and Mary Davis. 

Their job: to breathe life into unsolved investigations with the help of the dead.

Credit: Steven Bridges/University of Tennessee
The women of the Forensic Anthropology Center in the woods beside UT Medical Center. From left to right: Giovanna Vidoli, Joanne Devlin, Dawnie Steadman, Lee Meadows Jantz, and Mary Davis.

It's not a job for the faint-hearted. They work with real bodies from donors and have as many as 200 decomposing or skeletal remains on site. They are often tasked at recreating conditions and mimicking the state a victim's body was found in order to help investigators piece together when, why and how a person died. 

At any given time, UT said the five are actively working on 40 forensic cases.

“When you wake up in the morning, you have your little to-do list,” said Davis, FAC assistant director and research associate. “You might as well throw that list out the window.”

Cold cases are one of their specialties, but they also use their knowledge to help in other areas, such as leading international forensic investigations, identifying long-decomposed remains, and training law enforcement across the world how to identify human remains. 

They also oversee the research that happens at the facility and provide undergraduate and graduate students with hands-on experience in the field they are unlikely to find anywhere else. 

UT said forensic anthropology has become an increasingly woman-led field: Of the nearly 40 graduate students currently at the FAC, only three are men. 

“It is possible women continue to be implicitly or explicitly turned away from the hard sciences," Steadman said. "On the flip side, we know the women in our program are drawn to social issues like criminal justice and human rights. This is a field where you can be science-minded and also pursue justice for families. You can provide answers to them.”

You can read more about the five and their important work on UT's website.