March 12th, 2006 11:46 EST
Forensics: it's not all fun and games.
Things are not always as glamorous as they seem on TV; this is especially true in the case of forensics, a new area of study at West Virginia University.
“Nationwide there’s a need, not so much on the front lines. Many of the states have hired forensic detectives to work for them directly,” said Morgantown Police Chief Philip Scott.
The forensics department at WVU is trying to clear up some of the misconceptions caused by shows like CSI and popular mystery novels. In order to do this, they put on a forensics science fair for 60 high school teachers across the state and country. They hoped that by doing this, they would gain allies to help spread the truth about the field.
Unfortunately, 60 teachers will have trouble competing with the excitement of T.V., regardless of the extent of their knowledge about the subject.
“The interest probably started with high profile cases like O.J. Simpson’s,” said Dr. Cliff Bishop, head of the WVU Forensic Identification Program.
Bishop said he feels it was a convergence of factors that have drawn people to the field of forensics. Crime novels and shows like CSI have “Glamorized forensics”.
Not all students have an appetite for the coursework and are not prepared for the kind of classes they have to take. The degree is heavily based in mathematics, and some people simply do not have what it takes to complete all of the math courses required.
However, Bishop does not feel that there is a higher attrition rate in forensics than in any other science related field.
Surprisingly, many of the students who complete their degree in forensic identification go on to complete their master’s degrees in areas not associated with forensics.
“One-third of the students are in grad school. Some are training to be dentists, and some are training to be doctors,” said Bishop.
When asked if he gets excited while doing his work Bishop said he was, “always excited about solving problems.”
The school of forensics at WVU not only trains students in current techniques, but Dr. Bishop has devised a new technique that will be very useful in future cases.
“We’ve developed a technique for estimating the age of a bloodstain,” said Bishop.
At the moment, they are not able to give exact time; however, they could easily tell the difference in a stain that was two days old and one of six months.
This would have been very useful in pinpointing the age of the blood from O.J. Simpson’s Bronco.
Another factor likely to have drawn students to the school, is the role that forensics has played in the detection of terrorists.
Things like suicide bombings that leave hardly a shred of evidence, require the skills a forensic identification specialist possesses.
One of the things Bishop hopes to instill in the minds of those he speaks with is the reality of what can actually be done.
“In a sense, T.V. has raised expectations for jurors. Some things are just not possible,” said Bishop.
Unlike an hour-long television program that brings down a criminal every week, in the real world of forensics, sometimes there is no happy ending.