Unraveling a mystery
By Erin Smith
The body of Ms. Candy Cane was found in the woods outside her home. A team of forensic crime scene investigators crowd around trying to determine how she died and how long the body has been there. One member fo the team gives a cry of glee; fly maggots have been found.
Photo by Erin Smith
Caitlin Shaunnessey, a senior in entomology, examines fly maggots under the microscope while Becky Vollmer, a sophomore in medical technology, watches. By using insect taxonomy, forensic scientists can determine how long a person has been dead.
Is this a scene from the television show CSI or Crossing Jordan? Actually, Purdue University students are working on this case. With the rise in popularity of television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Crossing Jordan, Purdue professors are finding more students interested in learning forensic science, the application of science to criminal and civil law.
"Students are requesting a class in forensic science," said David Tate, director of Clinical and Continuing Education. "They have a fascination with the subject matter that could develop into a career." Tate and the School of Health Sciences teamed up with Ralph Williams, professor of entomology, and Neal Haskell, Purdue's first forensic entomologist graduate, to create a class in forensic science that encompasses aspects of other courses including chemistry, physics, anatomy, botany, entomology, soil science, psychology and sociology.
More than 370 students signed up in fall 2002 to take ENTM 295B: "Introduction to Forensic Science." The class examines topics such as the death process, blood patterns and stains, DNA, trace evidence (hair and fiber), fingerprints and ballistics, or the study of gun characteristics. Guest speakers, including police-men, coroners, pathologists, forensic anthropologists, toxicologists and soil experts are often brought in to give lectures.
The overwhelming response to the first class prompted Tate, Williams and Haskell to create two additional classes. ENTM 295O: "Criminalistics," the second course of the three, offers an optional lab, which centers on crime scene management. Students learn how to properly collect evidence at a crime scene.
Different laboratories focus on analyzing blood stain patterns, lifting fingerprints, taking footprint impressions, examining tool marks, collecting and comparing bullet cases and shells and preserving insects found near the scene. During the last three weeks of the laboratory portion, students work in teams of four or five on a mock crime scene arranged by Williams.
The third course, ENTM 295S: "Advanced Criminalistics: Analytical Laboratory Techniques," which will be offered for the first time in fall 2003, will be a lecture/lab combination, Tate said. Williams added that students will be doing more laboratory analysis work in the third course. "We might compare hairs and fibers under a microscope," Williams said.
With additional classes in law and society, health science or entomology, students can receive a well-rounded education in forensics. Because of the popularity of these classes, Tate and Williams are submitting documents to ask Purdue to consider forensic science as a major or minor.
After the students examined the insects found on the body of Ms. Cane, they were able to determine how long she had been dead. With that information in hand, they solved the crime. Case closed.