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Spring 2009 - Students investigate

Destination Purdue > Spring 2009 - Students investigate

Students investigate forensic science

By Julie Preble

A cloud of flies surrounds a body lying on the ground. It's been out in the sun for several days, and the stench of decomposing flesh is overwhelming. The investigator ignores the smell and begins collecting the maggots that cover the body.

Kristi Zurawski

Photo by Julie Preble

Kristi Zurawski, a forensic entomology graduate student, collects maggots from a dead pig. Examining the maggots could lead to clues about the pig's death.

No, this isn't a scene from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, it's a Purdue forensic entomology lab, the body is actually a pig and the investigator is Kristi Zurawski, a graduate student in forensic entomology from Lansing, Mich.

Zurawski said she originally thought about being a pediatrician until she realized she didn't really work well with kids. One of her professors at St. Joseph's College offered another option. "He said, 'If you don't like kids, we'll do maggots,'" said Zurawski.

This led Zurawski to Michigan State University where she earned her master's degree in entomology, the study of insects, and finally to Purdue where she is earning her doctorate in forensic entomology. For undergraduate students, Purdue offers a forensic science minor. Zurawski and other forensic science students get hands-on experience with more than just maggots and bugs.

According to Dayson Smith, an organizational leadership and supervision major from Bedford, Ind., finding fingerprints, collecting evidence, taking pictures, performing field tests on blood, learning to write reports and understanding the correct terminology are all a part of the lab. "The blood spatter and explosion/arson lab were done by the professor, but everything else is hands-on. It's the only way to learn this stuff," said Smith.

Another way Zurawski, Smith and the other students gained hands-on experience was when a vehicle was brought in for a homicide reenactment scene. "We estimated how far the body was flung and how fast the car was going. It was good to try and reconstruct the accident," said Zurawski.

Sam Van Lear, a law and society major and forensic science minor, enjoys the hands-on aspect of the class, but he really likes learning from top instructors in the field. "Patrick Jones was a lead CSI (crime scene investigator) in the John Wayne Gacy case," the senior from St. John, Ind., said about one of his instructors. "It made me want to minor in forensics."

The Gacy case was one of the most notorious murder cases of the 1980s. In 1980, John Wayne Gacy was convicted of murdering 33 boys and young men between 1972 and 1978. Jones was a lead CSI of the murders, and helped build the case against Gacy. "Patrick’s always telling us what not to do; he's always looking out for us," said Van Lear.

Jones tells his students the smartest, easiest and best way to do things, and he teaches them every trick of the trade, Van Lear added. Both Jones and Ralph Williams, a professor of entomology, are well-respected experts in their fields, said Van Lear.

Many students in the lab are entomology or law and society majors, but Smith, with his unique major, illustrates the flexibility of the forensic sciences minor. Smith knew that he wanted to be involved in forensics. Since Purdue doesn't offer it as a major yet, he chose it as his minor.

He said that he eventually wants to fly, be in the Secret Service or serve in the Diplomatic Security Service. The experience the labs give him will make the transition from school to agent much easier, he said. Taking a forensics class will help you have a different perspective on things; you can't always make quick conclusions, said Smith. "I didn't even think about doing any other minor. It was probably one of my best decisions here at Purdue," said Smith.