WILMINGTON – No, she doesn’t work in the dark. And she doesn’t chase bad guys.
But the work Debra Prince Zinni does is similar to what is shown on the hit CBS television franchise “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” A forensic anthropologist, Prince Zinni works at the Joint Prisoners of War Central Identification Lab in Hawaii, where she is part of a team that tries to account for all Americans missing as a result of past wars.
Prince Zinni, a Wilmington native, spoke Monday morning about her work to the anthropology class at Ursuline Academy, her alma mater. Her presentation included descriptions of how forensic anthropologists go about identifying human remains.
These specialists work on everything from fully intact corpses to miniature pieces of bone, she said. Their goal is to determine the age, gender, ancestry and stature of a body. As part of her presentation, Prince Zinni used slides to illustrate how trauma to a body can let her know if a person died from blunt force trauma or a gunshot, for example, and how bone shape and analysis helps determine whether the person is male or female, old or young, short or tall, or, in fact, a human at all.
She recalled a case while she was the state forensic anthropologist in Massachusetts in which someone reported finding the skeleton of a deceased baby. After carefully collecting and examining the bones, however, she came to a different conclusion.
“It turned out to be a cat,” she said.
Dental records, Prince Zinni said, are the quickest way to positively identify a body, sometimes within a day. Despite what is seen on television, “DNA can take six months or a year.”
Prince Zinni, 37, played volleyball and basketball while attending Ursuline. Upon her 1992 graduation, she headed to James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., on a volleyball scholarship. An older teammate suggested she take anthropology because it would be an easy A while the team was practicing and traveling throughout the fall semester.
She excelled at both volleyball and anthropology. On the court, Prince Zinni was twice named to the all-Colonial Athletic Association second team and once, as a junior, to the first team. She still holds the school record for games played and is in the top five in several categories.
In the classroom, she loved anthropology so much that she added it to her psychology major, then earned a master’s at George Washington University.
It was a bit ironic for someone who would not dissect animals while at Ursuline, she said. “You just kind of find what you love.”
She continued to the University of Tennessee, which at that time had one of the only doctoral programs in forensic anthropology. Tennessee is also the home of the Forensic Anthropology Center, also known as “the body farm,” where bodies can be studied in various states of decomposition under many different circumstances.
Prince Zinni stayed in Tennessee for a bit working for the Tennessee Valley Authority before she went to Hawaii. She was there for more than four years before moving to Boston, but six months ago she returned to Hawaii, where her husband of two years, Gabe, is a major in the U.S. Army.
Gabe Zinni grew up in Philadelphia, so this trip to the mainland allowed both of them to visit family for the holidays.
Prince Zinni grew up a member of St. John the Beloved Parish in Wilmington and attended school there until transferring to Ursuline beginning in sixth grade. After spending her freshman year of high school at Archmere Academy, she returned to Ursuline.
She said her Catholic upbringing influences her work daily. In addition to the science associated with what she does, “the notion for the respect for life is a key element in my work. That respect includes recovery of remains so that they can be identified and properly interred, as well as the comfort that it gives to the family by providing answers to help them with their grieving.”
Unfortunately, she said, those families may never get the closure they are seeking, but they do receive some answers about what happened to their loved ones, and they have their physical remains.