School of Math & Sciences
to offer CSI training © Dec. 21, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo of fingerprint lifting equipment.

File photo Norwich students will be able to study crime scene investigation techniques in the fall of ’08 when the Introduction to Forensic Science course becomes available.

Dr. Natalia Blank remembers when she was a young girl, watching a television crime investigation show.

“One of the characters who was helping the investigation, a forensic science person—she was a woman,” Blank, who holds a PhD from Dartmouth College, said. That show sparked her interest in forensics, leading to her pursuit of a career in chemistry. “I know it sounds quirky, but that’s how it is.”

Now Blank, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Norwich University, has developed a course in which she will share her passion for forensics and give criminal justice majors crucial knowledge. Introduction to Forensic Science, slated to be offered in the fall of 2008, will give students an overview of some of the components involved in crime scene investigations. Students will learn about fingerprinting, hand writing analysis, fiber examination and alcohol metabolizing, just to name a few of the topics.

The course is designed with criminal justice and science majors in mind. Criminal Justice majors, like all students, are required to take a lab science during their time at Norwich. But some have had trouble connecting what they learn in lab sciences like biology to their field. Blank, then, is configuring the class so criminal justice majors can relate technical science knowledge to their careers.

“I thought it would be more relevant to them and more interesting,” Blank said. “I can explain theory of an atom, but they may not relate to that. If I put it into perspective as evidence, and how trace evidence can be used in crime investigation, it may stick.”

Any person looking to be a crime scene investigator for a police department, having this in their background puts them ahead of everybody else.

~ Robert Appleton, ’92

Blank will use a text and laboratory sessions to teach students some forensic techniques. In addition, students will be required to write a research paper on a topic of their choosing, with Blank’s approval. The topic will be something not covered in class, so students can expand their knowledge of an area that is of particular interest to them, but was not covered in coursework.

Intro to Forensic Science, as the course title implies, is designed as an overview—not sufficient training for someone who would want to be a forensic specialist. But it is still important for anyone pursuing a career in law enforcement to take the class, said 1992 environmental engineering graduate Robert Appleton. Appleton is an investigator with the New York State Police Forensic Investigative Support Services, and a Norwich Board of Fellows member.

“If you want to be a crime scene expert, it’s immensely helpful. For a road trooper, it does help. Obviously you’ll be more of a well-educated, well-rounded officer,” for taking the course, Appleton said. “I think it provides an excellent base and background to make more intelligent decisions in the field. You’re not going to jeopardize the case. You can lose valuable evidence by just not having the background.”

Appleton, who works with Dr. Michael Baden of the HBO show Autopsy, said that having a forensics course could help a student get a job down the road. It may not help right away—the New York State Police hires strictly on a test score—but it could help when one is trying to specialize. Appleton said having that extra knowledge, and showing that one did well in a challenging class, could help an employer decide between a field of candidates.

“Any person looking to be a crime scene investigator for a police department, having this in their background puts them ahead of everybody else,” Appleton said.

As important as it is to learn what forensics can do, both Blank and Appleton said an important part of the course will be learning what the science can not do. While television shows like CSI and Crossing Jordan have gotten many interested in a forensics career, the shows make the work look simple. Narrowing down a suspect and developing a motive doesn’t happen in one hour in real life. And rarely is evidence 100 percent conclusive.

“People watch those shows and think forensic specialists and scientists can do miracles,” Blank said. “They’ll get an idea of what they can do and what they cannot do.”

Very few cases are solved by DNA evidence alone, Appleton said. “Most cases are solved with shoe leather and beating on the door,” Appleton said. “Old-fashioned police work. Forensics backs up that old-fashioned police work.”

I hope what they get out of this is how broad the field is,” Appleton said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to learn a lot of this stuff. This is the hot new thing right now, and this is not going to go away.”