Students trains for ‘CSI’ life with new forensics program

A finger-print lab, police laboratory internships and practical grocery store research characterize the College’s new federally-funded forensics concentration.

Program director John Allison, professor of forensic chemistry, hopes the program will include hands-on “CSI”-type experience and a unique, transportable “lab in a bag.”

“I feel like something bad is going to happen at TCNJ,” Allison said with a smile and a joking laugh in regards to students getting a mock crime scene experience at the College.

Students in Allison’s first forensic chemistry course began testing for fingerprints with brushes and powder in their first lab. A later experiment will test the use of luminol in detecting traces of blood. The students have been assigned a long-term research project collecting and studying common chemicals in 200 different household products found in grocery stores, such as shampoo and cosmetic products.

“The course starts in forensic science, then goes back to chemistry and looks at forensic science to try to figure it out,” Allison said.

In the first classes, Allison and his students talked about testifying in court. The class will be discussing the chemistry of arson investigations this week.

“We will be discussing the question ‘How may the study of oil slicks on the ocean lead to new approaches for arson investigation?'” he wrote in an e-mail message.

Allison awaits the arrival of supplies that will form a “lab in a bag,” including a laptop computer with possible wireless service in the science building, a handheld microscope to plug into the computer to easily transfer magnified images of hair, thread and fingerprints, and portable measurement and light detection equipment.

“New things show up every day,” he said about the delayed arrival of new equipment and supplies. The purchasing will only affect the order of some of the experiments, he said, and will not impact the coursework.

Allison stressed that the forensics program is a concentration, rather than a major.

“Forensics is hot right now,” he said. “Lots of schools offer forensics degrees, but you can’t do anything with that. It’s the hard scientists who have the impact. This is not a watered-down program; it’s on top of a full science degree.”

Allison hopes that his program will be a model for other forensic concentrations in biology, computer science, and possibly biomedical engineering at the College.

“It’s an exciting time in forensic science,” Allison said. “It’s becoming much more of a science, and courses like this will help that happen.”

The new concentration, which was appropriated $225,000 in federal aid, requires that students take two courses in forensic chemistry and two in the criminology and justice studies department.

Five of the students in the program spent the summer interning at the New Jersey State Police Office of Forensic Sciences in Hamilton, gaining practical experience and working toward certification in DNA analysis.

Shawn Silverstein, junior biology major, experienced in the internship the hard evidence of a Police Laboratory when he glimpsed boxes containing parts of a rib, a whole fetus, or human organs, while also “getting a foot in the door” for a future job in forensics or chemistry.

He practiced extracting DNA from blood and saliva and typing on genetic analyzers with the scientists at the lab.

“I could go right into forensics or any type of cellular biology job,” he said. “I’ll have a head start. You need to be able to extract DNA.”

A well-rounded biology education, he said, gave him the background he needed for the training and practice at the Police Laboratory.

Harry Rose, senior chemistry major, screened urine for the date rape drug GHB during his internship, attempting to develop a new gas chromatography method that would detect the drug without scientists having to report to a central location with special instruments.

Rose also helped prove, through controlled experiments, that anyone can meet the half-liter air requirements for the breathalyzer test. Police use the breathalyzer to test a person’s alcohol content.

“The instrumentation background from my chemistry classes was helpful,” he said. He added thathe College helped prepare him for the twelve-week paid internship.

Rose is one of 16 students enrolled in the first forensic chemistry course this semester.

Allison hopes that his program will be a model for other forensic concentrations in biology, computer science and possibly biomedical engineering at the College.

“It’s an exciting time in forensic science,” Allison said. “It’s becoming much more of a science and courses like this will help that happen.”

The new concentration, which was appropriated $225,000 in federal aid, requires that students take two courses in forensic chemistry and two in the criminology and justice department.