April 29, 2008

Want a ‘CSI’ Major? Know Your Science

It may not be Las Vegas, Miami or New York City, but the University of Saint Francis hopes the excitement is still the same.

Piggybacking on the names of popular television shows, Saint Francis will offer a "CSI" major this fall, more commonly known as forensic chemistry.

The popularity of crime scene investigation careers has soared in recent years with the creation of the shows sharing the same name, and Saint Francis saw that evidenced five years ago when it began offering a forensic component to its Three Rivers Science Symposium, its semiannual science camp for high school students. The idea for the new major soon followed.

"Kids were saying, 'Wow, I want to come to Saint Francis and study forensic chemistry. ... We really felt that the appetite was here as a major," said Gary Bard, chair of the chemistry department. "We didn't have students beating down our doors before the TV shows came out."

Forensic chemistry will act as an off-shoot of the already established chemistry program on campus.

Class requirements will include the regular chemistry, physics and biology courses, but students will also be required to take expert witness testimony, forensic microscopy and criminal evidence.

"It's not that forensic chemistry is different from ordinary chemistry," said Sister Carol Meyers, professor of chemistry. "You have to know your science."

And as the professors will tell their students, these crimes can't be solved in an hour-long time slot -- there's much more skill involved.

"You never run any test just once," Meyers said, referring back to the TV shows which, she said, have a tendency of making the job seem easier than it really is. And if high performance liquid chromatography and atomic absorption spectrometers are any indication of the skill level, this job's not.

"Generally, you don't do what you see on TV," Bard said.

In a tough market like forensic science, it's important to be flexible, according to Serafina Salamo, a forensic scientist with the Indiana State Police in Fort Wayne.

"The spots are limited," she said, but all hope is not lost.

"As students are coming out, they need to be marketable," she added.

Research or the willingness to move or to go into another unit could offer graduates the job needed before getting into their desired field.

Even more education could be beneficial for advancement in the field.

To ensure that the students get a real-life perspective on forensics, the campus will use professors who are currently working in the field, Bard said, but the campus is still working on hiring these adjuncts.

This program, which gained Saint Francis board approval in January, is being made available to the campus through two grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, totaling $930,000, which were used to purchase the machines for identifying evidence.

In the future, Bard hopes to hire a forensic chemistry professor, who has a doctorate in the field, to help expand the program.