New center boasts unique program in forensic dentistry



Marden Alder, D.D.S. (left), who heads the new Center for Education and Research in Forensics, and David Senn, D.D.S., clinical assistant professor of dental diagnostic science, review x-rays of an individual whose identification is unknown.

In addition to performing an invaluable service to law enforcement officials, the Health Science Center’s new Center for Education and Research in Forensics is the only place in the United States offering post-doctoral training to forensic experts.

Housed in the Bexar County Forensic Science Center on campus, the Dental School’s forensic education program is now officially called the Center for Education and Research in Forensics or CERF. Through the center, the Health Science Center offers a master’s degree in dental diagnostic science with an emphasis on forensics. The center also provides continuing education programs for health care and emergency personnel who need to know how to handle forensic dental evidence.

The CERF is headed by Marden Alder, D.D.S., associate professor of dental diagnostic science and head of the Division of Maxillofacial Radiology. Dr. Alder and his associate, David Senn, D.D.S., clinical assistant professor of dental diagnostic science, expect the new designation to lead to greater national visibility and increased support of the center.

Much of the CERF’s work involves identifying bodies through dental records at the request of the Bexar County medical examiner when a visual identification is impossible. In cases where the body is badly burned or decomposed, the forensic dentists will make an identification to spare the family from having to view the remains.

In one case, Dr. Alder recalls, a young man who was killed while hitchhiking went unidentified for four years. The boy’s correct dental records were finally discovered in California, and Dr. Alder was able to identify him, much to his parents’ relief.

“There is a huge psychological burden for the next of kin until they can have some closure,” said Dr. Alder. “It’s a great feeling to be able to provide that service.”

Dr. Alder and Senn compare a model of a crime suspect's teeth with photographs of bite marks on the victim.

Drs. Alder and Senn also investigate sexual assault and child abuse cases in which the victim is bitten. Using life-size photographs of the bite marks and a transparent overlay showing the arrangement of a suspect’s teeth, Drs. Alder and Senn check for a match. If the case goes to trial, they testify as expert witnesses.

“It is quite often rewarding in that you can help get someone off the street,” said Dr. Alder.

Education also gets high priority at the center. Drs. Alder and Senn recently completed a program to train emergency room nurses how to manage and preserve evidence from bite marks, including how to differentiate human bites from animal bites.

For example, a wound should not be washed until the forensic dentists can get a swab of the area for possible DNA evidence from the attacker’s saliva.

“We’ve gotten more calls from emergency rooms since the nursing education started than we ever did before,” said Dr. Senn.

At the request of the Bexar County medical examiner, Drs. Alder and Senn also have trained a 45-member dental forensic victim identification team. Made up of volunteers from the Dental School and private practice, the dentists on the team will be called in the event of a mass disaster to identify victims.

Thankfully, said Dr. Alder, the team’s services haven’t been required yet.