Meghan Finnerty | August 24, 2022

Roadkill to Research

How a student road trip turned into an unforgettable experience of a different kind.

Student and professor cataloging bones in the research lab

What most would see as simply roadkill turned into a big opportunity for one SUNY Brockport student.

Emma Wasson was running errands with her roommate before they planned to drive home for break – when Wasson spotted a raccoon that had been killed on the road.

Wasson looked at her roommate and said, ‘you know that thing I talked to you about.” Then her roommate replied, ‘I thought you were going to ask me, as soon as I saw it.’

Emma Wasson

Emma Wasson

The ask? Wasson wanted to pull over and collect the roadkill for a research opportunity in the Department of Anthropology.

Wasson grabbed the gloves, trash bags, and mask that were stashed in her trunk and decided that the cooler, the one she was planning to use for the road trip, would be the perfect size container for the raccoon.

“One of the main things that I noticed when I picked up the raccoon, was that it was going through the first couple stages of decomposition. Which is something we learn about in forensic anthropology.”

Besides needing to go home for break in a few hours, it was an almost perfect situation. The weather was the right temperature, the raccoon was the right size to use the Anthropology lab in Cooper Hall, and she had been waiting for the Department of Transportation to notify her of any fresh roadkill.

“But I felt like a crazy person as everyone was driving by,” she said.

She took the cooler and brought it back to their off-campus apartment to get it in the freezer. Then she contacted Tiffany Rawlings, PhD, a lecturer, and advisor in the Department of Anthropology about her findings.

“Emma asked if I would be willing to supervise the second half of her Anthropology Internship. She had been working in the Morgan-Manning House, a Brockport museum, and was wanting to do something that would be more in-line with her graduate school and career interests,” Rawlings said.

A research setting is where Wasson feels comfortable. She majored in anthropology and minors in biology and pre-professional health and spent multiple semesters on different research projects. But Wasson wanted one more experience: to de-flesh and clean bones.

“As Emma’s advisor I suggested that she could either purchase a pig’s head from a butcher or, if she was up for it, that she could collect some fresh roadkill.”
Tiffany Rawlings

“As Emma’s advisor I suggested that she could either purchase a pig’s head from a butcher or, if she was up for it, that she could collect some fresh roadkill. Collecting and processing roadkill for the purposes of adding animal species to a faunal comparative collection is a very common practice in archaeozoology and over the years, I have told students stories about doing just that while I was in graduate school,” Rawlings added.

In Anthropology, there are four main focuses, biological, cultural, archeological, and linguistic, Wasson explained. “Anthropology is one of the most broad majors out there. There is a little something for everyone, which is what I think I love about it,” she said. Wasson had tailored her coursework toward biological anthropology.

“I feel that it is of utmost importance that students get the opportunity to have hands-on experience in biological anthropology. There is no better way to learn methodology and to actually apply your knowledge than actually getting in there and getting your hands dirty,” Rawlings explained.

De-fleshing and cleaning bones is a typical process for a forensic anthropologist. One whose work would apply the science of anthology in a legal setting, like in conjunction with criminal investigations.

This would be Wasson’s – first case.

“The raccoon is our victim,” Wasson said. “Her cause of death we know, was a hit and run. So, I was able to see that very distinctively that there was a lot of head trauma. And now after cleaning the bones, the skull is essentially in pieces, and I have to put it back together.”

Rawlings and Wasson met up on a Saturday in the lab to start the process.

“My internet history was really weird, because I had to look up how to skin a raccoon and I’m a girl from Long Island.”
Emma Wasson

“My internet history was really weird, because I had to look up how to skin a raccoon and I’m a girl from Long Island,” Wasson said. “This was totally uncharted territory for me.”

For the next several weeks, Wasson sat in the lab with a tray of broken bones, reference books and tried to glue the raccoons’ bones back together as if it was a puzzle. The process allowed her to learn more about injury patterns and she categorized what she saw.

“I always enjoy supervising work like this. I love teaching and get a kick out of seeing that moment when a student really starts to understand something at a deeper level than just rote memorization of facts,” Rawlings said.

It was a great experience for both of them.

“The project was definitely worth it, I was able to gain first-hand experience and simulate a forensic investigation under the advisement of a forensic anthropologist,” Wasson said. “This has made me feel more prepared and more confident in the direction I would like to go into.”