January 29, 2007

SIUC to offer minor in forensic science

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Prospective detectives and others interested in piecing together the lives and deaths of others soon can start building the scientific foundation they'll need at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

University officials have approved a new minor in forensic science. The program is aimed at teaching undergraduates how such scientists evaluate physical evidence in criminal investigations, and the legal and ethical issues involved. Students can use the minor to prepare for careers or graduate studies.

An interdisciplinary and cross-college group of deans and faculty, including from the Center for the Study of Crime, Delinquency and Corrections, the Department of Anthropology and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, developed the program. SIU President Glenn W. Poshard approved the minor this month.

Officials hope to begin offering the new program this fall.

Currently, SIUC offers about two dozen classes related to forensic science that are scattered among several departments. The minor designation organizes those disparate classes into a new program that gives students a methodical way to pursue a career in those fields.

As more scientific methods become available to investigators, law enforcement and other agencies have a growing need for trained people who use microscopes, test tubes and mass spectrometry — among many other tools —to solve mysteries.

"There are a lot of things involved in forensic science," said Susan M. Ford, chair of the Department of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts at SIUC. "We also recognized that a lot of people have a more casual or general interest in this field and this provides a guided way to pursue those interests."

While images of Agatha Christie novels or the popular "CSI" television series may come immediately to mind, Ford said the minor can lead to several career fields. For instance, a forensic anthropologist studies bones and other clues to learn about the deceased's life and culture.

Ford said the department has offered the Forensic Anthropology class for three years and it has proved very popular with students who share a fascination with the various aspects of life, death and science the discipline combines.

"It's been taught in a classroom that holds about 30 and with the minor we'll probably be moving that to a bigger classroom," Ford said. "I guess it's popular because everybody sort of has that gruesome interest in finding clues and solving the puzzle. There is a natural fascination with death and an interest in how people get away with — or don't get away with — crimes."

Luke Tolley, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Science at SIUC, said that department's new class, Introduction to Forensic Science, explores the different specialties associated with the field.

"There is a lot of interest in forensic science but many don't realize the different branches that exist," Tolley said. The course explores such specialties as DNA identification, firearms ballistics, fingerprinting and fibers/hair microscopy, among others.

To earn a minor, students must complete 15 hours of study from the curriculum, including nine hours of required courses and six hours of electives.

Students can choose from a variety of classes, including Principals of Genetics, Ethics, Plant Diversity, Psychopathology, Criminal Procedure and Dental Anthropology, to name a few. The wide variety will enable students to customize their program to prepare for specific careers or simply satisfy their indivdual curiosity.

Tolley said faculty members believe this is the only such minor currently offered in the state, which could mean a boost for SIUC.

"Because of the great interest, we get a lot of inquiries here," Tolley said. "When you start searching for programs on the Internet, our University is quite high on the list in terms of number of returns. Having this minor available will only help that."