Long before she was an associate teaching professor and director of forensics at Rutgers University–Camden, Kimberlee Moran was a girl from South Jersey who thought archaeology sounded like the coolest job in the world. Moran has since amassed an impressive career as a forensic archaeologist, consultant, and educator, and this fall she will play an integral role in launching a master’s degree in forensic science, an interdisciplinary program covering the theory, concepts, and practical use of biology, chemistry, and biochemistry within the forensic sciences. Rutgers–Camden is the first institution of higher education in New Jersey to offer a master’s degree in the discipline. Rutgers Magazine talked with Moran to discuss her passion for forensics and archaeology, the value of ancient fingerprints, and the high hopes she has for this innovative master’s program.   

RUTGERS MAGAZINE: You’ve recently received a lot of attention for your work on the Arch Street project in Philadelphia. How did you become involved?

KIMBERLEE MORAN: I read an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about human bones that had been discovered on a construction site at 218 Arch Street. But no one wanted anything to do with them. It was just a box of bones. The medical examiner said they were historic, but the historical society said they weren’t interested because the site was private property. But I thought, “I want some bones! That sounds great to me!”  

RM: What has this project entailed and unveiled?

Bones and casket from Arch Street Philadelphia

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When groundbreaking began in 2016 to build condominiums on Arch Street in Philadelphia, a significant  archaeological discovery was unearthed. Between January and September 2017, Kimberlee Moran was part of  a vast team that excavated 496 burials going back to 1702. The members, including students, historians,  archaeologists, and bio-anthropologists, have been analyzing everything from hair toxicology to mummified brains as they try to identify as much as possible.

Photography: 
David Michael Howarth

KM: This piece of land has been many things: a hat factory, a car repair shop, and eventually a parking lot. But before any of that, it was the site of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia’s cemetery, which had supposedly been relocated in 1860. But when groundbreaking began on condos in 2016, they found bones. Between January and September 2017, our team excavated 496 burials going back as far as 1702. The project has involved eight institutions, represented by more than 60 students, historians, archaeologists, and bio-anthropologists. They have been analyzing everything from hair toxicology to mummified  brains and trying to identify as  much as possible. It’s been incredibly multidisciplinary. The long-term plan is to record the project’s findings and then reinter the remains in a cemetery in Philadelphia, treating the deceased with as much respect as possible.  

RM: How would you define forensic science?

KM: Most people hear forensic science and think of homicides and television shows like CSI. But it has more than a criminal application. “Forensic” means “related to the courts,” so forensic science can be used for civil cases, like when someone is suing an employer for an injury at work. If science comes into that case to answer questions, that makes it forensic. It’s not always about dead bodies or solving mysteries.

RM: How did you become interested in forensic science?

KM: I’m an archaeologist who studies the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Mesopotamia. For a while, I did contractual archaeology, and eventually spent a year at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, which had a master’s program in forensic archaeological science. It sounded so impressive. I thought, “Oh, it’s gonna be ancient dead bodies! I’ll learn how to excavate burial sites and cemeteries!” But on day one, I found out that I had made a huge mistake. It wasn’t ancient dead bodies—it was very freshly deceased individuals. But I never looked back.

RM: What drew you to archaeology in the first place?

KM: Like a lot of kids, I considered many professions. For a while, it was a  microbiologist or an astrophysicist. I  always just wanted to be cool, and  archaeology sounded cool. I always liked things like National Geographic and the idea of brushing dirt off skeletons. As a high school junior, I went into my guidance counselor’s office and said this is what I wanted to do. And he laughed at me. I took it personally, but I realize now that he was probably so taken aback by someone so determined and clear in what she wanted to do. But I thought, “I’ll show him!”  

RM: Do you see any parallels between archaeology and forensic science?

KM: At its core, forensic science is multidisciplinary. Archaeology is the same way: it’s a little bit of everything. I was also excited by the way everything in archaeology has a direct corollary in crime scene investigation. In archaeology, you have a site, you recover artifacts, and you come up with some interpretations based on what you found; in forensic science, you have a site, you recover evidence, and you use it to form a hypothesis about what happened at the crime scene. 

RM: What makes you good at it?

KM: I have a cross-disciplinary mindset, and you have to be flexible in lots of ways. I also have a strong stomach—for the gory things and also for the difficult situations at the heart of some crimes.

RM: What did your career look like before teaching at Rutgers?

KM: After my master’s was completed, I ran a business in the United Kingdom called Forensic Outreach. It was a range of programs that taught high school teachers how to do forensic science in school. I was also doing additional research work and became one of the primary figures within the field of ancient fingerprints.

RM: Why ancient fingerprints?

KM: Well, first of all, there are a lot of them and we haven’t done much with them. But it’s gaining momentum. In the early 2000s, I, along with a few others, was just starting to call attention to ancient fingerprints as artifacts in their own right. Think about anything made of clay. A fingerprint left behind is captured forever. So why not create a database of ancient fingerprints, just like we have a database of criminal fingerprints?

RM: What’s the value of that database?

KM: We have all these researchers working in isolation, not really talking to one another. This is a way to link what everyone is working on. Let’s say we have tablets from the same time period but from two sites. If you find the same prints, those sites link. A fingerprint is a marker you can link to an individual, and you can track that individual based on where his or her prints show up.

RM: Have you been involved in any criminal cases?

KM: I did some casework during my master’s. I also did a lot of work for defense barristers, like reading expert-witness reports, reanalyzing evidence, or going to court to help barristers form lines of questions. I developed a deep interest in the legal side of forensic science.   

RM: Why was the time ripe for Rutgers to offer this master's program?

KM: I took a break from being an instructor at Rutgers between 2013 and 2017 and worked as director of the Center for Forensic Science Research and Education at the Fredric Rieders Family Foundation in Pennsylvania and then as a faculty member in the forensic science program at Arcadia University. Then someone at Rutgers said, “Hey, why don’t we offer forensic science here?” I came back to Rutgers to help design, develop, and execute the program. The thing is, we live in a forensically active region. We’ve got a good forensic science state system, a military lab in Delaware, and a great forensic science bureau in the Philadelphia Police Department. But there was no program in New Jersey teaching true forensic science at an undergraduate or graduate level.

RM: How is the program structured?

KM: I’m incredibly conscious about the fact that our students need to be gainfully employed when they graduate. From day one, we start talking about employment at the other end of this degree. Everyone will take a forensic science symposium, which is a skills-for-life course. There will also be a series of core courses that all students have to take, and then they’ll choose one of two tracks—biology or chemistry. These were designed based on where the majority of employment opportunities are: biology for folks interested in things like DNA science, and chemistry for those interested in things like drug chemistry or forensic toxicology.

RM: What’s the greatest challenge in teaching forensic science? And what’s most challenging about learning forensic science?

KM: Your students are coming from a range of backgrounds—students with  degrees in biology, chemistry, or elsewhere. I have to constantly figure that half of the class knows what you’re talking about and the other half doesn’t. And forensic science is fast-paced. Students have to be ready to go from day one. But it’s one of the most exciting and dynamic disciplines anyone could learn.

To learn more, visit forensicscience.camden.rutgers.edu.