Ledyard medical student relies on art in forensic twist

Perhaps most 26-year-olds wouldn't want to spend their summers analyzing human remains, but for Ledyard native Katelyn Norman - artist, medical student, devoted "Law & Order" fan - the work was a natural merger of her interests.

"I'm very detail-oriented. I like things to be very organized and precise in terms of art," said Norman, who took pre-medical classes while majoring in art at New York University. "I was the really nerdy, Type A art student and the really eclectic, disorganized scientist."

She created a sketch of an unidentified woman while working at the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner this summer, an experience that has morphed into a project Norman plans to pursue over her next three years at Quinnipiac University's new Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine.

Norman drew on her anatomy lessons with Dr. Richard Gonzalez, a Netter professor and the consulting anthropologist for the OCME, to make the approximate facial image from the skull of a body discovered in Vernon in March 2013. The Vernon Police Department unveiled Norman's sketch in September, and the image was also added to the national missing persons database, NamUs, in the hopes that someone might recognize something familiar in the woman's features.

It was Norman's first time constructing a facial image from a skull, and although her artistic background, anatomy lessons and extensive research prepared her well for the experience, she quickly learned that there is no standardized way to do the job - something she hopes to change.

"There are whole (scientific) papers just about how far the tip of your nose is from the base of your skull," said Norman, who prepared for the project by reading the major texts about reconstruction and catching up on the most recent data.

But although there is a lot of information out there, there are few books that put it all together and "no real, clear-cut, 'This is what you have to learn, this is the path you have to take to become a forensic artist,'" she said.

Gonzalez agreed. There are a few institutions that teach forensic art, he said, and some very competent people working for organizations such as the FBI. But he said there is a dearth of artists with the "extensive knowledge of anatomy" required to do the job well.

From the Vernon woman's bones, for example, Gonzalez and Norman knew she was probably between 40 and 50 years old, although possibly a bit younger or older. They knew she was mostly likely between 5 feet and 5 feet, 3 inches tall. And the skull showed a person with high cheekbones and a narrow face.

"We did such an intense anatomy block on head and neck, so I was very familiar with the muscles that make up facial expression," like the cartilage of the nose and the ligaments of the eyelids, Norman said.

She said variations in the size of people's facial muscles can be reflected by "characteristic grooves" in the skull.

But beyond those details, "it becomes a little fuzzy," Norman said. Things like hair color, hair length, eye color, scars and weight are often impossible to determine.

"The likeness is never going to be perfect. There are a lot of things you can't tell from bone," Norman acknowledged. "For things you're less sure about, I guess that's where the art comes in."

While nothing is made up, Norman said a facial reconstruction "becomes kind of amorphic to try to accommodate as many interpretations of it as possible."

For instance, her picture of the Vernon woman has hair on one side that is straight and could be pulled back or cut short, while the other side is longer and wavy. The black and white nature of the sketch keeps eye and hair color ambiguous.

A concern with forensic reconstructions, Norman said, is that a family might become convinced that the unidentified person is not their missing relative because the picture doesn't look exactly like them.

"At the same time," she said, "I suspect that having the reconstruction out there generates more interest in a case, so even if it's through indirect means, the reconstruction could lead to an identification."

Norman hopes to develop a standardized methodology for making 2D facial reconstructions from photos. It will require a lot of math and might be less accurate than 3D models, but it eliminates a lot of practical issues, she said.

With a 2D protocol, "you could send the photographs to an artist to work on. It'd be far less expensive; you'd avoid all the costs of either having to cast the skull or CT scan it and have a model made of it or, God forbid, putting the actual markers on the skull itself and damaging the evidence."

Gonzalez said he believes Norman could make a career of forensics if she desired, calling her a "very bright student and very hard worker."

He said she was of such high caliber that he "considered her more of a partner over the summer than just a student who was trying to learn from me."

Norman said she isn't sure her forensic anthropology work will continue after medical school, although she said "the work feels so rewarding … I love that there's a real application."

One thing she is certain about, though, is the continuing presence of art in her life.

"I think eventually I'd like to turn the project into a series of oil paintings," she said.

"Once it's done - once, kind of, the science and the methodology and the reconstruction is done - I'd like to put some sort of artistic spin on it."

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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