Exploring the World of Forensic Science

Exploring the World of Forensic Science

To prepare for an upcoming class, Upper School Science Teacher Jill Hirsch gave her students an unusual homework assignment: Watch an episode of a popular crime-drama procedural.

“What did you notice?” Ms. Hirsch asked them after they had settled into their spots in Room 808.

“There was suspenseful music,” one remarked. Another added, “They jumped to conclusions so quickly.” A third commented, “No one was wearing gloves, and they were all dressed in nice clothes.”

Although Ms. Hirsch’s course and the television program share the same initials (“CSI”), the class agreed that the similarities ended there, which was the precise point of the viewing exercise.

“Real-life detectives would be wearing hazmat suits,” Ms. Hirsch pointed out, adding that hair and skin cells could easily contaminate evidence.

In contrast to the glossy implausibility of “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” the emphasis of this FOCUS class, called “CSI: Chapin Science Investigation,” is on actual forensic science – messy, time-consuming and reliant on the skills of highly trained specialists, both in the field and in the lab.

To help these Class 10-12 students gain a greater understanding of this multidisciplinary field, Ms. Hirsch invites accomplished professionals to impart their knowledge and expertise. One recent visitor, Kathleen O’Connell, is a forensic investigator for the Richmond Police Department in Richmond, Virginia, and a former member of the Chapin Science Department.

“It will be great for you to meet a genuine scientist,” said Ms. Hirsch before welcoming the special guest. Moments later, Ms. O’Connell waved to the class from her Zoom screen.

“Is anyone interested in doing forensics?” she began, clearly pleased when many hands shot into the air.

Ms. O’Connell, whose background includes a stint with the New York Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, holds a bachelor’s degree in forensic science and molecular biology from John Jay College and a master’s in forensic entomology from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “I studied how insects help with crime scenes,” she told the captivated audience.

For example, in forensic entomology, maggot activity on a victim could indicate the presence of defense wounds. As well, insects are instrumental in determining the type of drugs in a dead person’s body or in placing a suspect at the scene of a crime.

The students also learned about CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), a database of DNA profiles from convicted offenders, unsolved crime scene evidence and missing persons. “When someone is convicted of a crime, their DNA will be uploaded to CODIS,” explained Ms. O’Connell.

She gave the students a virtual tour of her department’s lab, stocked with specialized equipment like a camera that can detect bodily fluids, fingerprints, gunshot residue and traces of physical evidence such as glass and fiber fragments.

Before she signed off, Ms. O’Connell left time for questions. “How do you prevent your job from impacting your mental health?” one student asked.

“My colleagues and I have coping mechanisms like laughing and joking,” she said. “Thinking about gloom and doom every day wouldn’t help us.”

“What is the coolest part of your job?” another asked.

“It’s rewarding when you can sit down with a family, sometimes after a 15- or 20-year wait, and tell them we solved the crime,” Ms. O’Connell said.

Over the course of “CSI,” the students will hear from more illuminating speakers and continue to sharpen their skills and confidence, leading up to the grand finale: “There will be a crime committed in the Berendsen Room,” said Ms. Hirsch with a smile. “You will all have to figure out who did it!”

As these Upper Schoolers work toward solving this pretend crime, perhaps their interest in forensic science will grow stronger, paving the way for more exciting scholarship in this field and beyond.