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When forensic sciences graduate students in the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences become practicing forensic scientists or crime scene investigators, the graduates often find they are more prepared than their peers from other universities.
The reason? OSU-CHS graduate students have actually gathered evidence in the field, processed a crime scene, tested substances in the laboratory for DNA or drugs and testified before a judge and district attorney in the courtroom.
“We believe every forensic sciences student at OSU needs to experience a crime scene,” says Ron Thrasher, Ph.D., associate professor of forensic sciences. “When our students have their first career case and testify in court for the first time, they will have already had experience.”
He instructs Advanced Criminalistics, a course that incorporates actual field experience and is required of all OSU-CHS forensic sciences graduate students.
The School of Forensic Sciences has been ranked among the top programs in the United States and is one of 34 universities in the U.S. and Canada accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission. Under the auspices of the American Academy of Forensic Science, FEPAC employs rigorous standards to assure and advance academic quality at its accredited institutions.
OSU-CHS has the rare distinction of housing the Tulsa Police Department forensic laboratory, the eastern Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and its FEPAC-accredited forensic sciences graduate program.
“Our program is probably the only one, or certainly one of very few, that has such collegial arrangement of entities on site,” says Robert W. Allen, Ph.D., chairman of the School of Forensic Sciences. “Having these independent practitioners on campus is highly advantageous. The practitioners are very engaged in teaching our graduate students, and they collaborate with us and students on valuable forensic research.”
With the rise in popularity of television shows such as CSI and Bones, forensic science has become an especially attractive career field in the last decade or more. The Bureau of Labor Statistics most recently projected a 27 percent increase in available positions for forensic science technicians between 2014 and 2024, a growth rate faster than average for all other occupations.
The positive outlook for forensic science practitioners also ensures that competition for jobs will be substantial, increasing the importance of finding a university with an exceptional curriculum and program.
“I chose the OSU-CHS forensic sciences program because of its strong reputation for excellence and because it is a FEPAC-accredited program,” says Sunday Saenz, who graduated last spring with a master’s degree.
Through her mother’s work as a court reporter, Saenz grew up hearing about forensic scientists who testified in the courtroom.
“This sparked my interest and fascination with forensic science,” Saenz says. “I know the OSU-CHS Forensic Sciences program and my research project have already taken me in the right direction.”
Thrasher notes that the latest trend in forensic sciences is a move from large crime labs to smaller regional ones. This shift increases the need for forensic science students to receive a broad education in the discipline.
“The average law enforcement agency has four or five officers. They are often policed by the most dedicated officers who truly care about their communities,” he says. “The problem is these agencies often need more money for training and equipment.”
Thrasher says his students likely will be called to help local law enforcement agencies in identifying, collecting and packaging evidence. For instance, a student specializing in DNA will also have the knowledge and ability to analyze all evidence at a crime scene.
“We work to make sure students encounter situations that are as realistic as possible to enhance the learning experience,” Thrasher says. “I believe students learn more in the field than sitting in a classroom or a lab. There is a place for the classroom, but hands-on scenarios give students a chance to try it out for real.”
Earlier this year, forensic sciences graduate students traveled to Stillwater Regional Airport to investigate and gather evidence at a mock crime scene staged on an MD-80 aircraft donated to OSU by American Airlines.
A powdered substance, blood spatter and half-empty cups of alcohol were scattered throughout the first few rows inside the airplane’s cabin. In one of the seats lay a mannequin that served as the deceased. The graduate students crowded into the narrow aisles and began swabbing surfaces, taking samples of substances, bagging items, diagramming the scene and making notes about the condition of the body. And they soon discovered what complications could arise to make the process more challenging.
“We definitely learned about the difficulties you might have in real life,” says Kristin Dickerson, who has since graduated with a forensic sciences master’s degree specializing in toxicology. “We had to work in cramped conditions and we also realized we needed some equipment that we left behind.”
Weeks later, the students brought their lab results and formal reports to a Tulsa County courtroom to testify on their findings in a mock court trial. Tulsa County Judge Rebecca Nightingale, District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler and Assistant DA Reagan Reininger played the roles as judge, defense attorney and prosecutor, respectively.
“Being able to take part in the whole procedure from processing the actual crime scene and analyzing the evidence to writing the report and then testifying was one of the best real-life experiences this program offers,” says Ashley LaMothe, who graduated with a master’s degree specializing in pathology and death scene investigation. “I believe there is no substitute for testifying from an actual witness chair in front of a sitting judge and real attorneys.”
Thrasher says the OSU-CHS program also is distinctive for its emphasis on behavioral evidence as well as physical evidence.
“Students collect physical evidence such as hairs, fibers, footprints, fingerprints, DNA and drugs, but they also identify and collect behavioral evidence such as hate, anger, lust, rage, entitlement and resentment,” he says. “Students often find that behavioral evidence leads them to otherwise unconsidered physical evidence just as physical evidence leads them to behavioral evidence.”
Allen said the university has cultivated community partnerships that have been pivotal to building a strong forensic sciences program.
“OSU-CHS has been steadfast in its support for the growth and evolution of the forensic sciences program over the years, along with help from community foundations that have given us a cutting edge in instrumentation and capabilities,” he says.
Six years ago, in partnership with the City of Tulsa, OSU-CHS completed its $43 million Forensics Building that is home to the School of Biomedical Sciences, the School of Forensic Sciences and the TPD forensic laboratory.
And last fall, the School of Forensic Sciences purchased an old fire station adjacent to campus that was transformed into a crime scene laboratory and training facility to provide additional opportunities for realistic fieldwork outside the classroom.
Bones were buried in several areas in the yard next to the station and grass was allowed to grow over it so that students can learn to find and uncover a crime scene. The laboratory is set up to provide actual scenarios – such as bedrooms, a kitchen and a garage – to make crime scene investigation as authentic as possible.
“Our relationships with local and regional practitioners will enable the crime scene house to be used not only for teaching our graduate students, but also for specialized training for law enforcement,” Allen says. “We are excited about what our program has accomplished and are continuously seeking ways to build on that success.”
Travis Brachtenbach, OSU-CHS master's degree graduate in forensic sciences, testifies in a Tulsa County courtroom before Judge Rebecca Nightingale during a mock trial in May.
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Uploaded on September 1, 2016