Elliott Allums, Lindsey Neill,Brenton Hall, and Bryan Bookhammer examine materials in Dr. Teresa Golden's forensics lab.
When the American Academy of Forensic Sciences accredited UNT's undergraduate Forensic Science Program in 2008, it became the only accredited program in Texas and one of only about 30 accredited programs in the country.
Accreditation assures students who enroll in UNT's program that they are getting one of the best forensic science educations possible. One way UNT delivers that quality is by making sure students learn in a hands-on environment where they do forensics work in UNT laboratories and during internships in the field.
And that education serves them well in finding a job. The demand for well-educated, prepared lab workers is on the rise. A 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences calls for multidisciplinary, science-based approaches to address the existing need for more rigorous research and better training in the forensic science field. It also concluded that there is a growing need for more scientists to enter the field.
Rachel Wiley, a junior biochemistry major who hopes to one day work in the FBI Laboratory, became interested in forensic science through years of reading murder mysteries.
"As long as I can remember, I've been trying to solve mysteries," she says. "I guess I've always wanted to speak for the dead – to help the victims tell their story.
"Because UNT has one of the best Forensic Science Programs in the nation, I believe it is giving me exposure to a broad spectrum of the essential elements of the profession," Wiley says. "What surprised me about the program was how much these classes keep me interested and how much they reaffirmed that this field is my passion. I actually get excited about doing my homework."
Basis in science and hands on experience
During laboratory instruction, students:
- learn how to analyze drugs using several chemical and instrument techniques
- conduct complete DNA profiles of every body fluid
- analyze arson evidence
- identify trace evidence such as fibers, paint, soil, etc.
- learn how to run every advanced instrument they would encounter in a crime lab for processing evidence
Students choose to major either in chemistry, biology or biochemistry with a certification in forensic science. The program takes an interdisciplinary approach -- students' minor courses include both forensic science courses and criminalistics courses and all students must complete an internship at a lab or conduct advanced research. Students also take the Forensic Science Aptitude Test, which emulates the board exams graduates must pass after two years on the job.
Supplying workers for a growing field
Teresa Golden, Forensic Science Program director and professor of chemistry, says there are several ways UNT's program prepares students to move seamlessly into their chosen field.
"Our program is scientifically rigorous, so students are well prepared," she says. "UNT has put in several million dollars over the last 5 years to upgrade and equip UNT's laboratories with equipment matching that which is used in FBI or DEA labs, so students get hands-on experience with all the same instruments and techniques used in national forensic labs.
"Also, the professors who are teaching in the program are all working in the field doing case work and conducting research in forensic science and bringing advances to the field," Golden says. "And students are required to complete an internship in the field where they get real world experience in actual working labs."
UNT's Forensic Science is relatively young – only 5 years old – but is already seeing its graduates excelling in their chosen fields or by continuing their educations.
Alumni are practicing in the field, and succeeding
"95% of our students opt for medical school or graduate school in one of the science areas," Golden says. "A few have become science teachers and some have gone into the military to do investigative field work. However, all of them have been offered jobs at forensic labs."
Kristina Raines, one of UNT's 30 forensic graduates, is now working in a forensic laboratory. The 2009 graduate works as a lab technician in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) department at Orchid Cellmark, Inc., a private forensics laboratory.
"I process buccal swabs (cotton swabs that have been scraped against the cheek to gather cells) collected from individuals for DNA testing," Raines explains. "We extract the cells from the swab to get the DNA of the individual, quantify the sample to determine out how much DNA is available, copy the sample using amplification kits, and then load the sample on certain machines that will show the individual's genetic profile. When a profile is obtained, we send this information to the client who then uploads them into the CODIS database."
Prior to her work in the CODIS department, Raines worked in the lab's forensics department where she processed assault kits and evidence for homicide cases, testing biological fluids to try to get a genetic profile.
"My laboratory classes are what prepared me for this career," Raines says. "The instruments and testing I used were the same as those I use on the job now. Not only did I learn theories in my classes, I also worked with several forensic tests such as toxicology, anthropology and drug chemistry."
Lauren Nimelstein chose to seek her master's degree immediately after completing UNT's undergraduate forensics program. She's now in the University of South Florida's Cell, Microbiology, and Molecular Biology master of science program.
"A master's of science degree will allow me to specialize in molecular biology and provide a greater variety of future job opportunities," Nimelstein says. "UNT's Forensic Science Program gives students a broad spectrum of related courses from subjects including crime scene investigation to DNA studies," Nimelstein says. "Students can choose their preferred fields after they finish the certificate program and degree course work. I gravitated towards molecular biology during my time there, and had an opportunity to take a graduate DNA analysis course at the UNT Health Science Center for my internship.
Working to improve society
"These students are excited about science and using science to help others," Golden says.
Forensic Science Program graduates know they are making a difference in the lives of crime victims and the survivors of those who have died.
"Helping people is what I like most about my career," Raines says. "Even though my co-workers and I may not see it every day, I try to remind myself that we are, in fact, helping people. As doctors hopefully see their patients get better, we hopefully help victims in some way."
Wiley says she hopes her work will some day bring peace to living victims and to the families of those who did not survive.
"Case by case, I hope that my work will speak for the dead and help put away the guilty."