Kendall Gehring standing in front of a sign that reads \"VCU\"
Kendall Gehring has wanted to be a forensic anthropologist since she was 14. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Class of 2022: Kendall Gehring is driven to solve cold cases with forensic anthropology

“I’ve always loved puzzles,” says Gehring, who has had two internships with the FBI and has been a leader in VCU’s Department of Forensic Science.

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When Kendall Gehring was in eighth grade, her middle school history teacher took her and her classmates on a field trip from their home in Grayslake, Illinois, to Historic Jamestowne, where Gehring was fascinated to learn about the site’s discovery of the remains of Jane, a 14-year-old girl who died between 1609 and 1610 and whose bones held evidence of cannibalism.

“I bought a book about Jane and read all about her bones and her skeleton and that’s what introduced me to the field of forensic anthropology,” Gehring said. “Pretty much since the time I was 14, my goal has been to become a forensic anthropologist — to study the human skeleton — and that’s what led me to VCU, which has one of the best programs in the country for forensic science. Our program was actually used as the model to create the standards for other educational programs across the country.”

Gehring will graduate in May with degrees from the Department of Forensic Science and the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

She is not only an outstanding student — she has a 4.0 GPA and is in the Honors College — but has also been a leader among forensic science students, serving as president of the Forensic Science Student Club at VCU, helping to organize visits to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, and connecting her fellow classmates with professional contacts and alumni.

What is it about forensic science that Gehring finds so compelling? It’s because each case is like a puzzle waiting to be solved.

“I’ve always loved puzzles,” she said. “A lot of things you see on TV are not very correct, but the puzzle aspect, I think, they get right. You have all the evidence and the evidence is truthful to a fault. It tells you exactly what happened, but the scientist has to be able to interpret that evidence and put the pieces together to get the whole picture.”

Gehring is currently interning with the FBI in Richmond, working with a squad focused on transnational organized crime. Last summer she interned with the FBI in Milwaukee and focused on human trafficking and crimes against children. Both experiences, she said, have given her valuable experience and insights into investigations and law enforcement.

“As forensic scientists, we work with law enforcement and it’s really critical that both sides are familiar with what the other does and the capabilities that the other side has,” she said. “VCU prepares us really well with the science side of things, but it’s hard to learn a lot about the investigative side of things because we’re forensic science majors, not criminal justice majors. So that’s been my favorite part of my internships.”

Gehring has examined forensic cold cases in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner as part of a graduate-level Forensic Anthropology Applications course taught by Tal Simmons, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Forensic Science.

Gehring also helped Simmons in the field recently when unearthed human remains were discovered in an unmaintained corner of a Richmond cemetery.

“[Volunteers] are working on a project to clean up the cemetery, and one of them was clearing out plant material in that corner and found a bone, and so they called us,” Gehring said. “It was exciting, though I realize it’s a little weird to describe it that way. But I found a bone in a hole, and felt like my whole life had been validated. It was very exciting.”

Simmons said Gehring has a bright future as a forensic anthropologist.

“I’m excited to see a student like Kendall going into the field of forensic anthropology,” Simmons said. “She is well prepared as a forensic scientist to conduct research at the intersection of chemistry and bone physiology that will aid human identification. She is a hard worker, a great team player and always enthusiastic about learning and doing more. … I have no doubts that she will go far in her career.”

Research has also been an important part of Gehring’s time at VCU. For the past two years, she has worked in the lab of Emanuele Alves, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Forensic Science, as part of a project to develop a method to extract opioid traces from bone in cold cases.

Traditional toxicological matrices for detecting opioids include soft tissue, blood and urine, Gehring said, but those options are not available in cases of heavily skeletonized or heavily decomposed remains.

“We're ultimately trying to determine if we can find evidence of opioid use in the bone,” she said. “And if we can find it, can we extract it and determine a model that relates postmortem concentration with perimortem concentration — so the concentration in the system at the time of death — with the hope of determining if it was a large, acute exposure, which could be indicative of a potential poisoning, or does it look like chronic use, which might indicate a long-term drug user?”

Alves said she has enjoyed having Gehring in her lab and in the classroom.

“As she always said she wanted to be a forensic anthropologist and with her degree in forensic chemistry, she explained to me that this project was the union of the two of her worlds,” Alves said. “She is always enthusiastic and dedicated. I like the fact that I can trust her when I give a task to be made, and this in research is priceless. In class, she is always on time and always at the top of the class answering all questions and making good observations. To me, she is a positive presence. I appreciate that she is part of my team.”

Following graduation, Gehring will attend a master’s degree program in anthropology at California State University, Chico, focusing on forensic anthropology. She plans to pursue a doctorate in the field as well, and then work as a forensic anthropologist, perhaps with a crime lab or for a government agency or nongovernmental organization.

“[My plan is] doing the work,” she said. “After that, a lot of professionals go on to teach or do some kind of other academic involvement, but I think it’s really critical to practice first.”