A woman wearing a lab coat sitting in between two skulls and two skeletons. Behind her is a white board with text written all over it.
Sabrina Sims has thrived in opportunities to conduct forensic science work through both the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the East Marshall Street Well Project. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

Class of 2022: Sabrina Sims follows in the footsteps of TV hero ‘Bones’

Forensic science major, a Navy veteran and former PI and correctional officer, studies ancestral remains from the East Marshall Street Well Project to help determine ancestry.

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Sabrina Sims never imagined she would be mirroring the work of her favorite television character, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan from “Bones.” But, through her studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, she has found herself doing the kind of investigative work her fictional hero might have.

“I loved the show and thought the character, Dr. Brennan, was remarkable. I used to think to myself ‘I would like to do something like that one day,’” said Sims, a senior who graduates in December with a degree in forensic science and minors in biology and chemistry from the College of Humanities and Sciences. “At VCU, there are so many things we do in forensic science.”

Sims helps Tal Simmons, Ph.D., professor of forensic science, when Simmons works with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at the Virginia Department of Health.

“Dr. Simmons will have a case there, and we do an examination of the bones to see what happened at the person’s death,” Sims said. “We will assist Dr. Simmons, and she will come up with a decision. It’s similar to what they did on ‘Bones.’”

Sims is also working on a fall semester independent study of the East Marshall Street Well Project. The project was formed to facilitate a process with the Richmond community that ensures the appropriate study, memorialization and reburial of the 19th-century remains of at least 44 adults and nine children — most of whom were African or African Americans — discovered in an abandoned well uncovered during construction on VCU’s MCV Campus in 1994.

“We can trace the bones back to the country of origin, and we can tell what century they came from by entering these measurements into Fordisc database,” Sims said. “I’m trying to determine the ancestry of the bones.”

Sims believes the fall semester has been her best at VCU.

“I have learned the most in these past few months, and that has a lot to do with the professors I am getting knowledge from now,” she said. “Dr. Simmons is one of my favorite professors. She is one of my heroes.”

Sims’ path to VCU to study forensic science wasn’t as straightforward as it is for some students. Sims, who was born in Atlanta and later moved to Richmond, enrolled in the U.S. Navy after graduating from Douglas Freeman High School in 2004.

“I wanted to be the first and only woman in my family to enlist in the military,” said Sims whose grandfather and other family members served in the military.

Sims was honorably discharged from the Navy after two years of service and began working in armed security before she attended school to become a private investigator. She worked as a private investigator and correctional officer from 2011 to 2014 when she decided to enroll in college.

“My life had changed, and I wanted to do something different,” she said. “I talked to one of my military counselors, and we started researching my next move.”

Sims was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2006, and she was looking for a career that wasn’t stressful.

“It’s been a roller coaster, but I am a lot better now,” she said. “I wanted to branch out.”

Sims graduated from Reynolds Community College in 2016 with an associate’s degree in social science.

“While I was going to Reynolds, I knew I wanted to go to a four-year university,” she said. “I always had in my head that I wanted to go to VCU. VCU seemed to have an awesome program for forensics. It seemed like the right choice to make at the time.”

A single mom, Sims is parenting while pursuing her academic dreams.

“My kids really enjoy talking about the work that I do with their friends,” she said. “They see me going back to school and working for what I want. They think it’s admirable that I am doing something to try and help people.”