The bone whisperer

Forensic anthropologist Alison Galloway will retire from teaching this year, but her wisdom will live on through new online course that teaches both technical skills and the things you don’t find in textbooks

Professor Alison Galloway talks about teaching forensic anthropology and dealing with the dead. "We translate what is said by their bones into information that can be used by the living."
Seventy students from UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara have already signed up for what s
Seventy students from UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara have already signed up for what some are calling a legacy class that preserves Galloway’s unique teaching ability even after she leaves the classroom. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta)

The dead speak to forensic anthropologist and UC Santa Cruz Professor Alison Galloway.

A mark on the skull of a man’s body found decomposing in Stanislaus County, for instance, whispered to Galloway that he had been hit on the head. Cut marks on the lower part of his spine told of how his killer had violently stabbed him again and again, and a nick on one of his cervical vertebrae spoke of the way his throat was slit with a knife before he was left to die.

It was an ugly, torturous death and one that remains in the mind of Galloway, one of the state’s foremost forensic anthropologists who regularly works 15 to 25 cases a year.

“You realize someone was desperately, probably, trying to stay alive and it wasn’t like in the movies where someone comes crashing in at the last minute and saves you from the knife blow,” Galloway says. “In this case, the knife comes crashing down and nothing saves you.”

That Galloway still has a visceral, almost personal, connection to this victim is a side effect of her job. Often, she says, when she’s finished her work, she’ll finds herself filling in the rest of the victim’s story: the pain and fear someone must have felt as their killer attacked, the loneliness of an old woman as she lay dying in her apartment, and the darkness of the woods as the hiker grew weaker, knowing he or she would never find their way home.

It’s one of the reasons Galloway, who is set to retire from teaching this year (she retired as campus provost and executive vice chancellor in 2016), has created a new online forensic anthropology course. Besides teaching the technical skills—the examination of bones and teeth—the course also will enlighten students about the things they don’t find in textbooks: the connection to the victims, the way it feels to work around human death day after day.

“This not a field that should be taken lightly,” Galloway says.

Seventy students from UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara have already signed up for what some are calling a legacy class that preserves Galloway’s unique teaching ability even after she leaves the classroom.

The course, which includes lectures, lab time, and online discussion, covers everything from determining the age, sex, and race of human remains to figuring out how and when someone died. It also examines the legal role of the physical anthropologist, something that has changed dramatically over the past four decades. It is not open to the public, but offers university credit.

“Alison is a teacher who brings so much perspective from her long career working as a research-based anthropologist and a practitioner in the field,” says Michael Tassio (Crown ’03, philosophy), who is assistant director for online education at UC Santa Cruz. “When she talks to students, it comes from a place of deep authenticity.”

The first hint that Galloway is not some academic in an ivory tower is the skeleton artwork on the bulletin board next to her office door. The second is the three-tiered cart next to her desk that is filled with human bones, and the third, in case you missed everything else, is the handmade shirt she’s wearing that’s decorated in a colorful pattern of roses and skulls.

“I sew when I get stressed,” she says by way of explanation.

Galloway started in the relatively new field of forensic anthropology in 1982, becoming interested in bones while studying cultural research management at the University of Arizona and working in nearby O’odham tribal cemeteries.

“Some people (anthropologists) like tools,” Galloway says, sitting in her fourth-floor office, the sun dappling the redwoods outside. “Some like jewelry. Some like art. I just happen to like bones. There is something about them. They are the people who actually lived, not what they made or what they ate.”

In 1988, she was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where one of her jobs was to run the infamous Body Farm, a field of donated corpses that forensic anthropologists use to advance their research.

She came to UC Santa Cruz in 1990 and was certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists. Over the years she has examined the bodies of suicide victims, people who slipped off cliffs or got lost in the woods, people who died alone and forgotten at home, and people who were violently killed.

Her most publicized case was the murder of Laci Peterson, a pregnant woman who disappeared from Modesto in 2002 and whose body was later found in the San Francisco Bay. Galloway was asked to determine the age of Peterson’s fetus and reported it was still in Peterson’s womb when she died. Peterson’s husband was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to death.

“It does have an impact on the way you think about life,” Galloway says of her work. “You see how quickly life gets snuffed out in some situations. How there is a very thin line between life and death.”

So why does she continue?

“Because there are dead bodies that need to be examined, dead bodies that still speak,” she says.

Halloween will be her last day at work (and, yes, she sees the coincidence in that), but while she says she is looking forward to retiring to the Gold Country where she’ll have more room for her horses and dogs, she worried that she would be replaced by someone who would teach from a textbook rather than from experience in the field. Right now, she says, she is the only active and board-certified forensic anthropologist in the UC system.

“This (the online course) is my swan song,” she says, “My way of saying, ‘Look here, I’ll give you a good run of information from someone who is active in the field.’”

To that end, the campus’s online education department not only spent about 300 hours filming and producing the course but also helped develop a hands-on lab component, which Galloway believes is crucial.

Galloway picks up a humerus, an arm bone, to demonstrate.

“Students aren’t used to handling three-dimensional material,” she says, turning the bone in her hands. “They are more familiar with two dimensions: computer screens, phone screens, paper.”

She twists the bone sideways and taps her finger against three knob-like bumps on one end of it.

“The capitulum, the trochlea, the medial epicondyle,” she says, noting that students are often able to recognize the entire bone from illustrations “but if they only see these (smaller parts), they can’t figure out what it is.”

Handling an actual human bone is the only way to remedy that, she says.

Tassio sees Galloway’s online course as “an example of how master teachers can leverage technology to provide high-quality lectures, and to make meaningful use of class time. Her students interact with the online content, and then they come to lab eager to demonstrate their new knowledge and skills. 

“As much as we can break down barriers for new and more students, that’s exciting for me,” Tassio says.

The course will be offered again in the summer and is funded as part of the UC system’s $10 million Innovative Learning Technology Initiative.

For more information on the initiative, please contact Michael Tassio at or (831) 459-1346.