ATHENS -- Maria Teresa Tersigni-Tarrant donned a harness, clipped it to a rope and made her way down Lookout Mountain to the spot where someone found human skeletal remains last April.
She gathered and studied the remains, helping the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to identify the Ohio man who committed suicide by jumping off a cliff.
Six months later, the GBI invited her to help the agency with its most difficult cases that involved unidentified skeletal remains.
"When she rappelled down that mountain, she impressed a lot of people, especially those in law enforcement - people who are hard to impress," GBI Chief Medical Examiner Kris Sperry said.
"She did a stellar job and jumped into it wholeheartedly," Sperry said. "She is a tough, no-nonsense lady who knows what she's doing."
Even before that, Sperry was impressed enough by Tersigni-Tarrant, a professor with the Medical College of Georgia/University of Georgia Medical Partnership, to hire her as a contract worker for the GBI.
In Athens, she'll teach cellular biology and anatomy when the first medical students arrive in August. The next semester, she'll teach an additional class - forensic anthropology - as a UGA adjunct professor.
Although Tersigni-Tarrant bears the responsibility of teaching future doctors, she knows there's a lot at stake consulting with law enforcement.
Loved ones count on her to identify remains and when she scours the bones of murder victims, it's crucial to find out accurately how they were killed so that authorities don't arrest and prosecute the wrong people.
"I never forget that there's a family associated with it, so I need to do my job to the best of my ability," Tersigni-Tarrant said.
The spunky 31-year-old Michigan native, who answers to her initials, "M.T.," never planned to be a forensic anthropologist.
Tersigni-Tarrant was a pre-med student at the University of Michigan when she took a course on the study of bones she thought would be an easy "elective blow-off." Forensic anthropology was much harder than she anticipated, and at the same time, more intriguing.
"I decided that was what I wanted to do," Tersigni-Tarrant said.
She earned her master's degree and doctorate at the University of Tennessee and honed the skills of her craft, such as determining the approximate date of death, at the school's prestigious Forensic Anthropology Center and "body farm" - a wooded research facility scattered with corpses in every possible state of decomposition.
Though relatively young, Tersigni-Tarrant has dozens of cases under her belt because of the close relationship the Knoxville Medical Examiner's Office has with the University of Tennessee, consulting with professors and grad students.
Sperry learned about Tersigni-Tarrant from one of his associate medical examiners, and in January, a month before the GBI eliminated its full-time forensic anthropologist position due to budget cuts, he invited her for an interview.
The state's chief medical examiner immediately put Tersigni-Tarrant to the test, when his office received the charred remains of an unidentified newborn someone found in a fire pit in Terrell County in South Georgia.
"M.T. just happened to be here when we got all those ashes to sort through, and I thought that was a good place to start to see how well she performed," Sperry said. "She sorted through probably 20 pounds of debris from that pit and was able to pretty well reconstruct the entire skeleton."
The infant's mother later was charged with murder and concealing a body.
While teaching first-year med students how to dissect cadavers in the basement of MCG/UGA's Interim Medical Partnership building on Williams Street, Tersigni-Tarrant also will lead a forensic anthropology class at UGA - the first time in three years the course will be offered.
Tersigni-Tarrant expects the class will be filled to capacity, largely due to interest in the field sparked by popular television shows like "Bones" and "CSI: Las Vegas."
She doesn't care for the shows, because of hokey plots and the way they use technology that doesn't even exist - like a hologram machine that can show what a person looked like just by scanning the skull.
But she plans to assign students to watch, and later ask them to describe what was true and not.
"I'll ask, 'Why is it a problem that these types of things are presented in this manner?'" Tersigni-Tarrant said.
"A lot of people have lost the ability to do critical analysis," she said.
The GBI already has called on Tersigni-Tarrant to consult with 11 cases, 10 of which were homicides.
She never knows where in the state the GBI will send her next, or how complex the case will be - challenges she welcomes.
"Everyone should be so lucky to wake up each day and do something that interests them," Tersigni-Tarrant said.