The University of New Mexico has received a $702,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to create a database from 15,000 CT scan of the deceased.
According to Dr. Heather J.H. Edgar, associate professor of anthropology and pathology, she began the process of obtaining this grant in 2012. UNM was one of 19 universities to receive funding from the NIJ — 312 universities applied.
Emily Moes is a graduate student attending UNM for Biological Anthropology. Moes is in charge of the metadata portion of creating the database. She collects metadata by calling the descendant's next of kin.
“Metadata is data about the data. Our overall data are all of the deceased in the database, and the metadata is the data about the descendants,” Moes said.
Moes said she has been calling next of kin since about mid May. Thus far, Moes has collected information on about 100 deceased. However, she is frequently unable to contact next of kin.
When successfully connecting with the deceased's next of kin she said she asks health and lifestyle questions. She said these questions can be about occupation, smoking habits and everything in between.
According to Edgar, this project is currently being worked on by one graduate student, three faculty members and about five staff members — all while working on other things at the same time.
Moes makes roughly 40 calls a week and will call each next of kin a maximum of three times over several weeks. After three calls, if no contact has been made, the only data that goes into the database is the data from the CT scans. Moe’s said the CT scans come from the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI).
The deceased ages range from several days old to 90 or so years old. Cause of death is not one of the qualifications for being entered into the database — the subjects may have died naturally, by suicide or by homicide. Moes said the only qualification is that a CT scan was done after death between 2010 and September 2017.
Moes said when making calls she anticipates a range of reactions. Right now, calls are only being made to next of kin of subjects who died multiple years ago, she said, and because of this most of the interviewees have already gone through their grieving process. However, later this year when calls are being made to the next of kin of the recently deceased, Moes said she will be extra mindful of the interviewee’s grieving process.
According to Edgar, this database has the potential to answer many questions across a variety of subjects. She said the project is interdisciplinary. Researchers can design questions to draw from the database in a multitude of ways.
“This will be a free access database. Any qualified researcher will have access and so will students,” Moes said. “The database won’t just be for UNM students and professors, but accessible all across the country.”
Megan Holmen is a freelance reporter with the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@megan_holmen.