New CSUEB club puts forensic science under the microscope
BY LINDA CHILDERS ’85
Slipping a glass slide containing hair samples found at a crime scene under a microscope, senior Mary Keehan peers into the lens in search of answers. During the next hour, Keehan and several other students will examine evidence from bloodstains to fingerprints found at a murder investigation scene. Their goal: reconstruct the events leading up to the crime and assist in identifying the perpetrator.
It’s not a typical day in the classroom but rather a different type of crime scene, one where like-minded students — all members of the newly created CSUEB Forensic Science Club — meet to discuss the latest issues, news, and trends pertaining to one of the fastest growing professions — forensic science.
By studying minute details of a crime scene, these aspiring forensic scientists are learning how to identify criminals and analyze evidence against them, as well as how to perform comprehensive chemical and physical analyses of evidence and prepare reports describing the results.
Under the guidance of Assistant Professor Keith Inman of the Department of Criminal Justice Administration, the Forensic Science Club launched in spring 2010 and meets twice a month, attracting 20 students, primarily biology and chemistry majors, who hope to broaden their knowledge of forensic science standards, practices, and protocols.
“We thought a Forensic Science Club could illustrate the scientific side of the criminal justice system and take students beyond what they’re learning in the classroom,” says Keehan, a biology major with a forensic science option and one of the club’s founders.
Fueled by mainstream exposure from television programs, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and high-profile criminal trials, interest in forensic science as a profession has soared. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, forensic science was one of the fastest growing careers in 2008 reporting a 30 percent jump in the number of forensic science technicians. The field bridges the gap between medicine, science, and the law — yet students quickly learn that the popular CSI television shows, with their highly stylized forensic techniques, don’t always accurately portray the real world of forensic science.
“Every aspect of a real investigation takes much longer than it does on CSI,” says junior Samantha Dunn, a chemistry major with a forensic science option and co-founder of the Forensic Science Club. “In real life it can take months to get some test results back, and not all cases are ultimately solved.”
Dunn says club members often joke about analytical forensic tools that don’t exist except on television and the show’s misrepresentations about how forensic scientists process evidence.
In real life, those who aspire to work in the forensic science field typically have a strong foundation in the physical sciences. At CSUEB, undergraduate chemistry and biology majors can choose to take the forensic science option. Many students, including Dunn and Keehan, plan to continue their studies after graduation and obtain medical degrees, which are needed for employment as a forensic pathologist or medical examiner.
The CSUEB forensic science option is a 119-unit program offered through the Department of Biological Sciences. Students take courses in physical sciences and mathematics, biological sciences, and criminal justice administration.
“The Forensic Science Club complements our existing curriculum by offering students access and exposure to what they would see in an actual crime lab,” Inman says. “My goal is to train the next generation of forensic leaders and to have our students fully prepared to compete for jobs in crime labs.”
Inman, who has over 30 years experience working as a forensic scientist, uses evidence photos from real cases to teach club members techniques including how to reconstruct bloodstain patterns. At one recent meeting, Inman brought in “dummied” evidence samples containing packaging errors to help teach students how to protect the integrity of evidence by preserving it properly.
Since forensic scientists often are called upon to testify at trials or hearings to explain evidence or laboratory techniques to jurors, Inman also has devoted time at club meetings to discussing effective presentation skills and how to face intense scrutiny while on the witness stand.
“We’re all going to be called upon to testify in court at some point in our career, and there isn’t a class that prepares you for what to expect,” Dunn says. “Keith knows how tricky cases can be and how our court testimony can impact the case.”
For Keehan, who hopes to work in a forensic lab after graduation, the one-hour to two- hour club meetings provide a welcome opportunity to analyze evidence and crime scenes, and brainstorm theories and observations with other students.
“Some of our meetings start with a PowerPoint presentation of actual case files, and club members discuss possible scenarios about what may have occurred at the crime scene,” she says. “We start with what the police would have seen when they first arrived on the scene and go through each step, making a hypothesis, and then comparing the results to the opposite situation.”
While the photos depict actual crime scenes, Keehan says the club mandates that members keep the information confidential and not discuss cases outside of the group.
Another recent club meeting featured a guest speaker who discussed his 33-year career as a forensic scientist working in private and government crime laboratories. He also donated a comparison microscope to the club that can be used to analyze side-by-side specimens of fibers, hair, and ballistics.
Keehan says club members plan to schedule more guest speakers as well as presentations on new developments in the field of forensic science.
“Forensic science is an ever-changing field that presents a lot of unique challenges,” says Keehan. “Evidence only gets you so far — to solve a case you need to have good analytical skills combined with stellar police work.”