Creative Learning: Forensic Botany Class Goes from Science to Sculpture

In the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) Department of Botany’s Forensic Botany class, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) research botanist Alex Wiedenhoeft gives his students full creative license when it comes to their final projects.

“They could even do an interpretive dance.” said Wiedenhoeft, “Although they’d have to interpret it for me, since I’m a botanist.”

Undergraduate student Jennifer Baccam appreciated the freedom of the assignment and chose an interesting medium to demonstrate what she had learned in Wiedenhoeft’s class: sculpture.

Jennifer Baccam’s sculpture of FPL’s Arthur Koehler.

Baccam is majoring in plant biology and when she heard about Wiedenhoeft’s forensic botany class, her curiosity was piqued.

“I love botany and have done lots of field work,” said Baccam. “This class seemed like an interesting way to meet the requirement of taking a laboratory class.”

In giving thought to her final project, Baccam wanted to know how forensic botany came about. When she began to research the topic, Baccam discovered it all began with a scientist named Arthur Koehler from none other than the Forest Products Laboratory.

Koehler was the chief wood technologist at FPL in 1932 when Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and a wooden ladder was nearly the only evidence at the scene of the crime. Koehler was asked to participate in the investigation and eventually testified in the trial. Based partly on Koehler’s testimony, Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the crime, and subsequently executed.

At the time, no one had heard of an expert witness in wood. In fact, one of Hauptmann’s lawyers stated the following in objection to a question posed to Koehler: “We say that there is no such animal known among men as an expert on wood; that it is not a science that has been recognized by the courts; that it is not in a class with handwriting experts or with ballistic experts. But this is no science, this is merely a man who has had a lot of experience in examining trees, who knows the barks on trees and a few things like that.”

Koehler of course balked at this statement, and it was stricken from the record as the court deemed Koehler was indeed “qualified as an expert upon the subject matter.”

As Baccam read Koehler’s testimony, she found it plenty apparent that he was confident in his skills and abilities as a wood expert, and he stood behind what he had learned in examining the ladder as evidence.

Forensic Botany student Jennifer Baccam.

“Koehler came across as a larger-than-life personality,” said Baccam. This observation is apparent in her sculpture, in which Koehler’s bust is looming over the other aspects of the case that are represented, including the ladder itself.

Baccam’s curiosity about forensic botany continues to lead her down a new path, as she is set to begin working in FPL’s Center for Wood Anatomy Research with Wiedenhoeft soon, and will complete her senior thesis at FPL beginning in the fall.

“I’m lucky to have Alex as my mentor,” says Baccam. “Since the beginning of the Forensic Botany course he has helped me further realize that research is truly my passion. My perspective of my future is much less uncertain now.”

To learn more about Wiedenheoft’s forensic botany course, which he co-teaches with UW Professor Sara Hotchkiss, see this feature story from UW-Madison.

Forest Service Leaders Convene at FPL

The Forest Service’s Combined Eastern Leadership Team, with members from the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), Northern Research Station (NRS), Region 9, and Northeastern Area, State and Private Forestry gathered at FPL this week for the sixth year running.

Forest Service Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen addressed the group on a wide range of issues Wednesday, including the recent fire-funding fix, the One USDA initiative and the expectation of leaders as the Forest Service moves forward with important Workplace Environment efforts.

“This is always one of the highlights of the year, and we really do model the concept of one Forest Service,” said Tony Ferguson, director of FPL and NRS. “It was just a really great week.”

Other themes for the week included discussions on combining resources to achieve shared goals, environmental analysis and decision making, conflict management and prevention, and congressional awareness and interactions.

Meeting participants tour FPL’s pressure treatment pilot plant.

The Forest Service’s Middle Leader Program also spent the week at FPL and joined the leadership team all day Wednesday. Participants from both groups toured the Lab as part of their visit.

“I am just so gratified with the ease in which everybody in all three mission areas interacts with each other,” said Kathleen Atkinson, Eastern Region Regional Forester. “It is just wonderful to be a part of this.”

An Old Tale is New Again: Lindbergh Kidnapping Case Still Fascinates

Of all the stories we tell about happenings at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), the story of the famed 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping and our scientist’s involvement in solving the case just never gets old.

The so-called "Lindy Baby Ladder," which Forest Products Laboratory Botanist Arthur Koehler used to convict Bruno Hauptmann.

The so-called “Lindy Baby Ladder,” which Forest Products Laboratory Botanist Arthur Koehler studied and was used to help convict Bruno Hauptmann in the infamous kidnapping.

Adam Schrager, a journalist at WISC-TV in Madison and the author of The Sixteenth Rail: The Evidence, the Scientist, and the Lindbergh Kidnapping, recently penned another fascinating article on the case for the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s alumni magazine, On Wisconsin.

Forensic work is still alive and well at FPL in our Center for Wood Anatomy research, and you can learn more about our modern-day wood sleuths in these recent LabNotes offerings.

Tony Ferguson Named FPL Director

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell recently announced that Tony Ferguson has been selected as Director of the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) and the Northern Research Station.

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Tony Ferguson has been named Director of the Forest Products Laboratory.

Ferguson has been acting in this role for the past eight months, guiding the workforce and overseeing innovative advances occurring at both units. “We look forward to the effective, steady leadership he will continue to contribute to the Forest Service,” said Tidwell.

Ferguson is excited for the opportunity to build on what he accomplished as acting Director. “It’s great to continue working with the Station and Lab,” he said. “The work we are doing is very important and is changing people lives.”

Ferguson’s career in public service spans 32 years, and includes time spent with both the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. A native Tennessean, Ferguson earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

We welcome Tony as the official Director of FPL and look forward to furthering our mission under his leadership.