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New forensic science professor aims to bring students’ interests in the human body to life

When Dr. Joan Bytheway was a young girl in Columbus, Ohio, digging for dinosaur bones, forensic anthropology — the study of human remains from an archaeological perspective — was not widely recognized. Now, as the newest forensic science professor in Liberty University’s Department of Biology & Chemistry, Bytheway is prepared to share her passion and Christian worldview in a growing field.

Bytheway began her professional life in accounting, but when she volunteered at an archaeological site with Native American remains in Pennsylvania, she once again found herself fascinated by the human body and was encouraged by a mentor to study forensic science. Bytheway went on to earn her Ph.D. in Physical and Forensic Anthropology from University of Pittsburgh in 2003.

For six months in 2005, Bytheway and her late husband joined an international team in the war-torn country of Iraq collecting prosecutorial evidence of crimes against humanity that would eventually help convict Saddam Hussein. Bytheway said those months were both somber and fascinating as she worked with team members from five different countries on such a poignant task, all while in a region with many biblical connections.

“What was happening there was the Iraqi people knew where these mass graves were, so they were pilfering them and trying to dig up their loved ones,” Bytheway said, explaining that in doing this the families were destroying forensic evidence.  “We were in the city of Ur in the southern part of Iraq, in the province of Muthanna, and that’s where Abraham from the Bible was, so it was so interesting to be in a place like that.”

Bytheway then moved to Texas and began working at the Galveston Medical Examiner’s Office before ultimately becoming a professor at Sam Houston State, where she taught forensic science for over 14 years. While there, Bytheway founded and directed the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science (STAFS) facility, a willed-body donor program where she and her students conducted research in human decomposition in a variety of forensic disciplines.

Her research regarding human decomposition at STAFS was featured on a 2017 episode of “60 Minutes Australia,” which came about after scientists in Australia showed a desire to replicate her lab.

“When I was in Iraq and seeing body after body coming through, I just thought we needed a lot more data in forensics, especially anthropology and entomology,” Bytheway said. “I also really wanted the facility to be interdisciplinary, because I saw how well in Iraq we worked together as a forensic team. The STAFS was also designed to train those who would be collecting evidence for the victims of crimes.”

Teaching at Sam Houston State and then six months at the University of Houston, Bytheway said that she experienced missed opportunities to share her Christian faith and minister to students who would ask her for life advice.

“With the students who worked in my lab and I had in my classes, some would come to my office and there was an inhibition to really talk about my faith with them,” she said. “We all have this hole in us that God puts there because He wants to fill it, and students would come in and they would expose that to me, their depth of dissatisfaction with life and not knowing the meaning of life, and I had to give more of a secular response. I really didn’t like that; I wanted to share with them how special God is.”

When Bytheway found herself looking for a new teaching opportunity, she came across the opening at Liberty. Recognizing the school from radio advertisements she would hear on her morning commutes in Texas and knowing the Christian worldview through which she would be encouraged, rather than discouraged, to teach, she applied.

“It was funny because I would be driving up to Sam Houston and there was always a Liberty commercial on the radio, and I kept saying, ‘Man, would that be a school to work for,’” she said. “That opening came up, I applied, and I prayed about it and prayed about it, and it just worked out.”

Bytheway’s proficiency and passion in forensic anthropology will be a valuable addition to the program, according to Director of Forensic Science Dr. J. Thomas McClintock.

“She is bringing a discipline that we didn’t have an expertise in, so I really viewed it as expanding the program,” McClintock said. “She can offer courses that are applicable to the forensic science program, but also offer classes to those interested in pathology from a medical standpoint, such as a medical examiner. A big attribute she brings is her status as a successful woman in the scientific field, and she shows a passion for her discipline that the students notice quickly because it exudes from her.”

“My students have said things like, ‘I want to do this work because I see how passionate you are about it,’” Bytheway said. “I love teaching it, I think it’s so fascinating, but ultimately I don’t want my students only to do well in the class; I want to be able to help them in life circumstances as well.”

Studying human remains is not for everyone, Bytheway said, but it can serve as a reminder of God’s complex design of our world.

“I just met with a student in my office the other day and I said to him, ‘Look at all the books on my shelf. They’re all about how humans evolved, because that’s how I learned anthropology; it was from a very evolutionary perspective,’” she explained. “But I knew it wasn’t right when I learned it. I knew that we were created in the image of God; we weren’t developed or evolved from the apes. I love to share that with my students, so that they actually can see empirical scientific evidence of that.”

Bytheway is currently teaching human anatomy, physiology, and standard biology classes and will add a human osteology (he scientific study of bones) course and a forensic science seminar in the spring.