The fingerprint’s story
UF Health’s forensic education programs are helping to train the next generation of law enforcement officials who use their training in science and medicine to unravel complex mysteries and put criminals behind bars.
By Paige Parrinelli
It was March 2005. Karen Smith was a detective with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. She had been assigned to a case where a 16-year-old girl had been sexually assaulted in the woods near a school bus stop.
Finding evidence was difficult, but with help from the victim, Smith and her co-workers managed to locate a DNA sample from the perpetrator.
Smith was ready to take the evidence to storage. Then her knowledge kicked in.
Smith recalled from her online DNA and Serology course at UF that sperm cells die quickly. This meant it was imperative that the evidence reach the lab as soon as possible. If Smith took the evidence to storage, no one would get to it until the next day.
Smith rushed the sample to the lab.
The results were back within 16 hours. The DNA pointed to a potential suspect who lived a mile away from the site of the incident. Upon investigation, Smith and her colleagues found that the suspect still had the gun he had used to threaten the victim. He also had the victim’s cell phone, which contained a recording of the act.
The suspect was arrested, prosecuted and sent to jail. Had Smith sent the evidence to storage, as usual, it wouldn’t have been examined until the next day or the day after. By that time, it would have been harder to do a DNA analysis.
Smith’s knowledge stemmed from her studies in UF’s Forensic Science Graduate Program, which she graduated from in 2010.
Now in its 14th year, UF’s Forensic Science Graduate Program is the world’s largest forensic science education program. The program earned the Award of Excellence in Distance Education from the American Distance Education Consortium in 2006 and has trained more than 700 graduates from all over the world. For law enforcement professionals, the program gives them an academic foundation for their work in crime scene investigation. The program offers master’s degrees and graduate certificates in five areas, including forensic science, forensic DNA and serology, forensic toxicology, forensic drug chemistry and veterinary forensic sciences.
“We started with just 30 students and now we have over a thousand every year,” says Ian Tebbett, Ph.D., founder and former director of the program and a professor in the colleges of Pharmacy and Veterinary Medicine.
The well-known distance education program is now entering a new phase after coming to an agreement with the CSI Academy of Florida to offer hands-on training to students at its facility in Alachua. It’s the first time the program has established a formal partnership to offer hands-on training to all students as part of the online program.
“Our partnership with the CSI Academy in Alachua will give our students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the techniques we teach relating to basic crime scene investigation, taught by world-renowned experts in the field,” says Donna Wielbo, Ph.D., director for all online forensic graduate programs, and the academic adviser for the online master’s degree programs in forensic science and forensic DNA and serology.
Like Smith, students in the program are usually law enforcement workers who wish to understand more about crime scene investigation and other work they already do. Other students who are typically part of the program include high school teachers who want to pique their students’ interest in science and military crime scene workers employed by the U.S. Army, Wielbo says.
“The program is very interactive,” she says. “We use animations to illustrate some of the more technical points, like the different effects of impact or how equipment works.”
The graduate program is also one of UF’s most established and successful distance learning initiatives. UF’s forensic sciences program includes students from more than 50 different countries, and the university has specific partnerships with universities in Australia and the U.K. Workshops have also been held at law enforcement agencies in countries such as Chile and Thailand.
Because students learn the theories behind forensics in their online modules, they will have an easier time understanding what they learn during hands-on workshops, Tebbett says.
“The benefit of the online component is everyone has a pretty good idea what they’re learning before we get there,” he says.
Smith says the program helped her see the bigger picture during a crime scene investigation. Thanks to her classes, Smith had a better understanding on what kinds of evidence forensic lab workers and prosecutors would need. This allowed her to tailor her investigations around that information.
“It made the process faster and easier,” Smith says.
Smith applied to the program in 2009 and graduated a year later. In 2013 she began working with the National Forensic Academy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. However, one of the things on her bucket list was to return to UF as an adjunct faculty member.
“UF being my alma mater, I was hoping to come back,” Smith says.
Wielbo thought Karen’s experience and qualifications would be a great addition to the program. Not only is Smith now an adjunct professor for the program, she also is working alongside her former instructors to create an innovative, hands-on course for students who are working toward a master’s degree.
Along with her work at UF, Smith also serves as director of forensic education at the CSI Academy of Florida. The CSI Academy is a law enforcement training facility located in Alachua. The facility offers courses on crime scene investigation and other crime-solving methods to help further educate those who are already in the field.
Between February and March 2014, UF’s Forensic Science Graduate Program and the CSI Academy forged an agreement to form a three-year partnership. The partnership provides a hands-on program for students in the program, giving them an additional layer of learning.
“That’s what they wanted and that’s what we’re giving them,” Smith says.
According to Tebbett, students have been asking for an additional hands-on program like this for several years.
“The program was designed primarily for those already working in a laboratory who have the hands-on training, but we soon began attracting students who enjoyed the theory but wanted practical training as well,” Tebbett says.
Smith said students from as far away as California, Colorado and Maryland have inquired about the program.
“I think it’s safe to say we will have a geographically diverse group,” she says.
The first hands-on component of the program will begin in December. As part of a three-credit course, 24 master’s students will take an intensive one-week, 40-hour “forensic boot camp” at the academy in addition to their online training.
Students will receive hands-on education on crime scene investigation topics ranging from blood spatter analysis to court room-related procedures. Smith said the CSI Academy has several practice crime scenes based on real crimes she and other faculty members have analyzed while working in the field.
Beyond the crime scene
Eventually, Smith hopes to expand her own training — she’d like to earn a Ph.D. — and begin a research project on bloodstain analysis. She hopes to focus her research on biases that can occur during pattern analysis.
Smith says she has always considered herself to be a good learner and that helps her to explain complicated subjects to students. So for now, she is happy to play a role in educating the next generation of crime scene investigators.
“I really enjoy watching the lightbulb come on when people grasp a new subject,” she says. “That, to me, is the ultimate high.”