Forensic science is popular on TV, but demanding in reality

2:30:00 PM CDT - Thursday, October 06, 2005

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

If you've watched any of the "CSI" shows, you might think forensic science isn't for the faint of heart.

It isn't for the weak of mind, either, when you look at the requirements for WSU's new forensic science program.

Starting next spring, WSU will offer the bachelor's program, which was approved by the Kansas Board of Regents last month.

It's a program with a rigorous science foundation, with nearly two-thirds of the degree requirements being in chemistry and biology, and a broad base in the areas of criminal justice, anthropology and psychology.

While students in the program may learn about abnormal behavior, investigations, the physical and cultural development of humans, and excavating a body, they'll spend far more time in the labs, learning how to conduct experiments.

"This degree is for the folks who work in the lab," explained Brian Withrow, the associate professor of criminal justice who is coordinating the program.

When potential students ask about the job they've seen on TV the crime scene investigator who collects evidence, analyzes it in the lab, interviews suspects and then makes arrests Withrow tells them, "Go be an actor. That job doesn't exist in the real world."

In the real world of forensic science, technicians tend to be the ones who help solve crimes by using test tubes and microscopes.

"We're doing the science because that's what people in the forensic business say they need," said chemistry chair Dennis Burns, who helped develop the curriculum.

A solid science background, particularly in chemistry, is what Tim Rohrig, who directs the forensic science labs at Sedgwick County's Regional Forensic Science Center, looks for when he hires scientists.

Rohrig, who helped design the program and will teach some of the classes as an adjunct professor, said some universities may offer what's called a forensic science degree but it's a "glorified" criminal justice degree that doesn't provide the rigorous science and lab experience he needs in technicians who have to identify chemical compounds of substances ranging from drugs to fibers.

Because of the heavy science requirements, graduates of WSU's program could also find jobs at biology or chemistry labs, said the faculty involved in developing the program.

The creators of the new degree found fewer than 20 comparable programs in the nation, with the nearest in the region being at the University of Central Oklahoma, Columbia College in Missouri and the University of North Dakota.

Nearly all of the required courses for the program, except the yearlong capstone course in which seniors will handle a fictional case from start to finish, were already being offered at WSU.

While crime dramas such as "CSI" have prompted the public's and inquiring students' interest in forensics, the demand for technicians who find the scientific proof to back up evidence is very real.

"There's not a lab in this country that couldn't hire 10 more technicians," said Withrow, who managed a crime lab as a Texas state trooper.

Rohrig agreed, saying his lab could easily use more scientists if funding were available.

Rohrig cited a survey that showed, if resources were available, about 1,000 forensic scientists would be needed nationwide to meet the targeted 30-day turnaround for processing evidence.

A 2004 Department of Justice report said among the reasons for the high demand for forensic scientists are the increased awareness of law enforcement officials who realize the crucial role evidence plays, changing demographics and jury expectation.

Peer Moore-Jansen, WSU's anthropology chair who has testified as a forensic anthropology expert in criminal cases, said law enforcement officials and juries have come to expect that evidence and experts are meeting certain standards. Expertise alone isn't good enough to stand up in court anymore, said Moore-Jansen.

Just as television crime shows are helping raise levels of expectations, they also are raising the level of interest in forensic science. Since WSU started developing the degree last year, liberal arts and sciences advisers have fielded literally hundreds of inquiries into the program.

"Many students want to get into forensic science because of the glamorized 'CSI' shows," said Gerry Lichti, the assistant dean in charge of the LAS Advising Center. He's seen this kind of pop culture-fueled interest before, in fields like medicine, but the majority of students change their minds when they see the rigorous science requirements for this degree, he said.

WSU faculty are certain they'll fill the program, which will allow about 15 admissions each year, to ensure the program's quality.

"We want to limit it to the cream," said Burns.

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