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Can you tell us what you do?

As an outraged nation closely followed the trial of the Nirbhaya gang-rape and murder case in Delhi, a lab in Dharwad was silently aiding the investigators prepare a watertight case against the perpetrators. The forensic odontology department of the SDM Dental College played a vital role in establishing the crime by five accused. That the Delhi police chose the Dharwad lab for forensic dental analysis in a high-profile case like Nirbhaya is testimony to the competence of the man who heads it, Dr Ashith B Acharya, and his dedicated team.

But the Nirbhaya case is just one among the many where the lab’s expertise has been sought, a more recent one being unravelling the mystery of the Annigeri skulls. The team worked for a month, analyzing the skulls and teeth, says Dr Acharya. “The state archaeology department finally concluded that the skulls belonged to those who died in a famine and that it was a heterogeneous population.”

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

For a man whose interests span from sports to architecture, with archaeology and anthropology being subjects that the good doctor wanted to pursue as career options during his impressionable teen years, this was coming full circle. As a student who “only occasionally excelled in studies”, represented his school in sports and art, Dr Acharya says he was the proverbial “Jack of all trades, master of none”. Among his other dreams was to be a sports champion and to beautify Mysore, where he lived as a child. He also spent a few years in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, where his father was posted there as a government physician. Dentistry, however, became his final calling, as he followed his older brother in the profession.

What did you study?

Dr Acharya completed his B.D.S. from S.D.M. College of Dental Sciences & Hospital, Dharwad, in August 1999, and undertook postgraduation in forensic odontology in the University of Adelaide,Australia, in December 2001 (GDFO, Forensic Dentistry).

After graduation, he felt an urge to do something “more challenging” than clinical dentistry. He finally chose forensic odontology, after stumbling upon the subject in one of the books in his brother’s room. It helped that the subject also delved in his old love, anthropology.

Tell us about your career path.

He travelled to Chennai in 2000 where, along with a dozen other dentists from across the country, he founded the Indian Association of Forensic Odontology. Since post-graduation in this specialty was not available in India then, he pursued his higher studies in forensic dentistry at the University of Adelaide in Australia in 2001. This gave him exposure to a range of forensic dental cases, including the identification of an Australian victim of the New York World Trade Center attacks of September 2001.

Following post-graduation, Dr Acharya worked in Dharan in Nepal where he helped set up South Asia’s first exclusive department of forensic dentistry. A three-year stint later, he returned to India and to Dharwad, which has been home for the past eight years.

Recalling the Nirbhaya case, Dr Acharya says, “We took five days to conduct a thorough forensic analysis and established that at least five marks matched the accused’s dental modules. We used computer analysis for it.”

He says he submitted a 12-page detailed analysis report to Delhi police and mentioned the degree of certainty of identity of the accused. “Of the five marks, two could be matched with two accused. I went to the Saket court on May 6 to testify and was cross-examined by the defence lawyer for about one-and-a-half hours. The evidence submitted was accepted in toto by the court,” the doctor recalls.