There are approximately 82,000 American service members who are considered missing in action across the world according to the U.S. Government. The effort to provide closure to the families of these men and women is ready to take its next big step thanks to discoveries led by UNO students like Columbus, Neb., native Ryan Ernst.
Ernst and his Maverick Spirit was recently on display at the nation’s capital as part of "Posters on the Hill," a nationwide undergraduate research event held each year. A recent computer science graduate and Scott Scholar, Ernst was the lone representative from the state of Nebraska at the event, which is put on by the Council on Undergraduate Research and allows students the opportunity to interact with fellow students as well as their state representatives.
"I had a chance to learn a lot through the opportunity and I also got the opportunity to advocate for undergraduate research because there isn't enough of it," Ernst says. "UNO is a great example because we have the most that I've heard of - of any school - and those opportunities are huge."
Partnering to Bring Families Closure
Ernst's journey to Washington, D.C., began in 2017 following the announcement that UNO was partnering with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to help with identifying military members who were killed - and remaine unidentified - from the attack on the U.S.S. Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor in 1941. The effort, named CoRA (Commingled Remains Anaytics), is led by Sachin Pawaskar, Ph.D., a professor of practice for the College of Information Science and Technology, and leverages student coders to help speed up the accuracy of identifying remains.
Ernst, under Pawaskar’s mentoring, secured funding for his work on the project through the Fund for Undergraduate Scholarly Experience at UNO.
One of the DPAA's two labs is located just outside of Omaha at the Offutt Air Force Base and Ernst was brought on to help develop code for the CoRA project. Prior to the work from Pawaskar and Ernst, anthropologists at Offutt were using pen-and-paper to keep track of the specimens they processed. That effort is now computerized and becoming more streamlined.
"Consider that there are so many different ways of writing the word 'right'," Pawaskar explains. "You'd have someone do capital 'R' and lowercase 'i-g-h-t' and then someone else would do lowercase 'r' and 'i-g-h-t' while someone else would just write 'R' or 'RT' and it is just hard to do good analysis when you don't have clean data."
Following two years of work, Ernst's lasting legacy is evolving CoRA from a computerized, text-based data matching project to a visual one.
"Anthropologists have a process called osteometric sorting, which gives them a list of possible pairs for one specific bone and then they have to narrow that down, usually by visually looking at it, so we are in the process of automating that as well. My piece is a visualization graph that will give them the possible pairs for a specific bone. And then, within that, we are going into depth to see the pairs of the pairs and the pairs of the pairs of the pairs just to give them a sense of how that bone relates to all the other bones."
Bringing Research from Omaha to Washington, D.C.
As a participant of Posters on the Hill, Ernst and Pawaskar had the opportunity not only to present the CoRA project to other researchers, but also Nebraska representatives, including Rep. Don Bacon (R-NE), Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE).
"Don Bacon came by and spent 15-20 minutes talking to me about the project and that was really cool - to get to talk to him," Ernst says. "He is actually a large part of the reason I got to do this project because he played a big role in bringing the DPAA to Omaha."
Ernst and Pawaskar also got to take part in the Nebraskans Breakfast alongside honored guests of Nebraska representatives.
"I really learned a lot, specifically how talking to government staff is a lot different than talking to anyone because you are there to advocate for a specific reason and you need to get that idea across and you have to make it personal but also not include too much detail," Ernst says. "Being able to describe, big picture, what the project was and my specific role was pretty interesting."
The Future of Forensic Identification
In recent years, thanks to efforts from UNO students and faculty, the DPAA has made significant gains in increasing the number of remains they were able to correctly identify each year, doubling the number identified each year in just the last five years. Pawaskar says the next step in the project will increase those numbers even further.
"Previously we maybe had one specimen potentially matched with 300 other possible other specimens in a co-mingled set, but now we will be able to narrow it down to maybe 20 - and the visualization capabilities will allow for further narrowing. The next goal then is to say can we eliminate some of these 20 matches through other association data such as DNA or trauma or pathology and further filter out with the ultimate goal being a one-to-one pair match that we can definitively say goes to one individual."
Ernst, who graduated during UNO's 2019 May Commencement, says that he is planning to stay on the project for several more months as he helps identify another student who will continue to move the project along even further. After that, he plans to find a job in Omaha while still staying involved.
"When I first came on [the project] it was still in its beginning steps and so to watch it over these last two years and see it grow has been amazing and seeing where it can go," Ernst says. "After working on it for so long I really can see the possibilities of what the project can be and where it can go. I want to stay close, because when the project takes off I want to be a part of that."
About the University of Nebraska at Omaha
Located in one of America’s best cities to live, work and learn, the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is Nebraska’s premier metropolitan university. With more than 15,000 students enrolled in 200-plus programs of study, UNO is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts. Founded in 1908, UNO has served learners of all backgrounds for more than 100 years and is dedicated to another century of excellence both in the classroom and in the community.