Alison Galloway. Photo: Aylin Woodward

“There’s the orbit, a piece of femur, a rib up there, the third metacarpal…” Alison Galloway points her finger toward the PowerPoint slide. She’s showing a crowded lecture room—with 100 rapt UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) students, alumni and members of the public—how she identifies bones after they are burned. “We put the body in a barrel, add fuel, and stir,” she says, describing one of the scenarios she runs at a local fire death investigation school for members of law enforcement and forensic anthropologists.

Galloway, 63, was born in Middlesex, England. Despite having left at age three for North America, a slight accent bleeds through her long vowels. Her family first moved to Vancouver and then settled in Belmont, California.

She enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1971, intending to study African prehistory. But her focus changed after six years of digging in Arizona’s native O’odhom cemeteries after graduation. “Ceramics were nice, but bones speak to you,” says Galloway. “They’re not something made by the person; they are the person.”

So, she enrolled in the University of Arizona anthropology program in 1981. Galloway came face to face with her first burned body—“black and crispy”—during that first year. She’d seen skeletons before, but never a body. It took only one for her to become hooked on forensic anthropology. “I enjoy the mystery of solving the puzzle,” she says. “It’s that challenge of thinking ‘how can I make sense of this.’”

Galloway’s career took off after she moved back to California in 1990, when she began teaching at UCSC and became certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropologists.

Now, Galloway identifies skeletal material in forensics cases in Central California. Law enforcement agencies and coroner’s offices send 15 to 25 cases a year to Galloway for examination. Her job is to “speak for the dead,” she says—to not only find out what happened, but also repatriate remains to homes and families if possible.

Galloway also testifies as an expert witness in court. She provides information about trauma and how long the person has been dead, based on her examination of the body.

In her most high profile case, she identified the age of a fetus in the highly publicized Laci Peterson murder. “I was not on the stand very long,” Galloway remembers. In 2002, Peterson, who was pregnant, went missing in Modesto. Peterson’s and her son’s bodies were pulled from the San Francisco Bay four months later, and the question of whether Peterson had given birth before being killed became a keystone issue in the trial of Peterson’s husband, who was convicted and sentenced to death.

“One of the assertions was that Laci had been held hostage and the baby was born live,” Galloways says. “So how old the baby was and how long the bodies had been in the water were critical.” Galloway thinks her testimony—that Peterson had died before giving birth—mattered in the case.

Since 2008, Galloway has also collaborated with the San Luis Obispo forensic fire death school to train homicide detectives, criminal investigators, and students on how to reconstruct what happens to bodies when they burn.

Galloway had to get creative to construct some of her teaching scenarios. "To simulate a head-on car collision, we had to drop a car off a crane into the ground nose first," Galloway says. Her hands pantomime the plummeting car as she describes how much fun it was to use the crane.

Other moments in Galloway’s career are more somber. She recalls investigating a small plane crash, and the challenge of having to compartmentalize her emotions and “go into science mode.”

“I’m lifting up a baby’s body and putting a hand under it the same way I would’ve done when changing my own daughter’s diapers… except this baby had no head because of the crash impact,” she says.

Her role as a forensic anthropologist caused her to confront the death of her niece and parents more directly, she says. “I wanted to be told a person was dying. I can accept that,” she says. “I also look at people and know that they can be gone at any moment.”

Beyond being head of the body lab on campus, Galloway has been teaching at UCSC for more than half of the institution’s lifespan, and has served in various administrative roles since 2001, including campus provost.

But her academic career is coming to an end. Galloway plans to retire from teaching in December 2018—though she’ll continue her forensic casework until “she can’t do it anymore.”

When Galloway reflects upon her 26-year-long tenure at UCSC, she says she’s most proud of the number of students she’s mentored into gainful employment.

One of those students is Lauren Zephro.

“It sounds cheesy, but everything that I am, I owe to Alison,” she says.

Now the Forensics Services Supervisor in the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office, Zephro says having Galloway’s endorsement opened the academic and professional doors that brought her to “all this,” gesturing around her forensics lab.

Zephro recalls when Galloway took her to her first crime scene as an undergraduate.

“I keep coming back to us in the field where were both on our hands and knees with biohazard suits on. She’s down there in the trenches with me, unafraid to get her hands dirty.”

Though Galloway is embracing the twilight of her teaching career, she wants to tackle the problem of “there not being enough bones.” She hopes to use 3D printing to supply more skeletal material for osteology and forensics courses on campus.

She sighs dreamily when speaking about the 10-acre piece of “Gold Country” in the Sierra Foothills where she can retire. She is excited at the thought of the free time she can spend riding her three horses and caring for her animals.

Galloway fosters injured birds of prey for Santa Cruz’s Native Animal Rescue. In addition to her two great horned owls, Galloway also nurses an injured hawk. Her enormous home—nestled at the base of the Santa Cruz foothills, three miles from the nearest through street—also accommodates three parakeets and three shelter dogs.

“I like it out here,” she says, gesturing to a living room peppered with dog toys and skull paraphernalia. Dirt pokes out from under her painted pink nails. A silver skull ring glitters on her middle finger.

Despite having examined more than 300 bodies and testified in countless court cases, Galloways says her legacy doesn’t feel impressive. “It’s just what I did,” she says.

Zephro disagrees.

“The people she’s helped through her work may not know her by name, but they know their loved ones have been found and identified,” Zephro says. People have been held accountable for what they’ve done because of her work. A lot of families out there have closure because of Alison.”

Aylin Woodward is a graduate of the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication program, and graduated from Dartmouth College with an A.B. in biological anthropology and government. She loves to write about anything to do with human evolution, monkeys, primates (yes, they are different), foot anatomy and paleoanthropology. For more of her work see her website or follow her on Twitter @aylinwoodward.