Women at forefront of booming forensic science field


Stephanie Sham, left, shines an alternative light source as Tara Petty photographs fingerprints during a forensic photography class at George Mason University. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

In the middle of a July heat wave, a circle of students knelt around a hole in the ground in a partly shaded grove at George Mason University, digging for dead bodies.

While gnats clung to their sweat, Amanda Guszak and her classmates filled five-gallon drums with discarded soil. Their professors, former crime scene investigators in Prince William County, broke the tedium with stories about their days on the police force — the time one exhumed the soupy graveyard remains of a puppy mill or the homicide scenes they worked with vultures circling overhead.

Finally the students’ hand trowels hit two mounds. They heard the telltale buzzing of flies, inhaled the acrid whiff of rot.

“It doesn’t smell that bad,” Guszak, 24, said hopefully, as they began digging to reveal what classmates had buried for the exercise. A theory emerged: double raccoon-icide.

These are the graduate school days Guszak likes best, working on mock crime scenes that preview what a career as a death investigator working for a medical examiner might be like. So far, she’s optimistic. “It’s everything you see on TV and more,” she said.


Amanda Guszak and Ken Domenic work a mock crime scene as part of a forensics class at George Mason University. (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Guszak is the face of the booming field of forensic science: female, educated and raised with “CSI” and “Bones.”

The popularity of prime-time mysteries is helping to recruit a new generation of amateur sleuths, and universities are clamoring to respond. The three-year-old forensic science program at GMU is one of hundreds to spring up in the past 15 years.

The program aims to be at the forefront of a movement to build up the academic base of a field with a tradition of apprenticeship that has come under heightened scrutiny.

As forensic science comes of age, it will likely be led, unlike nearly every other scientific discipline, by women.

***

Forensic science, or science that’s used in court or the justice system, is relatively new to academia.

The earliest well-known forensic science program started at Michigan State University in 1946, but few followed suit. Most forensic scientists came up through law enforcement or were recruited from other science-degree programs.

But since the 1990s, the number of degree or certificate programs has proliferated.

William Whildin, who spent three decades as an investigator for the Fairfax County Police Department and the Virginia medical examiner’s office, started the program at GMU because he wanted to advance the field by improving training.

His first “Introduction to Forensic Science” class in fall 2009 had three students. Three years later, nearly 200 are enrolled in one of two graduate programs, and about 100 are pursuing an undergraduate degree.

Classes include forensic toxicology, forensic chemistry, criminal law, DNA, anthropology and crime scene analysis. In a forensic photography class, students learn to use blue lights and special lenses to capture fingerprint detail and a reagent to reveal washed-away blood. For a new forensic art class this fall, students will study the structure of skulls to ascertain the sex, race and age, and re-create facial features in clay or by computer.

Whildin thanks television for doing most of his marketing. He also credits a growing job market. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs for forensic science technicians will outpace average job growth, increasing by 19 percent between 2010 and 2020.

Median pay is $51,570, with salaries starting closer to $30,000 and exceeding $80,000. The nation’s capital is a hot spot with more and better-paying jobs available at federal agencies, as well as local and state agencies.

Whildin invites weekly speakers to showcase forensic careers: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a crime lab for investigating animal poaching on wildlife reserves; the National Transportation Safety Board investigates mass-transit accidents; dentists trained in forensic science analyze victims’ bite marks. (Serial rapist Ted Bundy was famously convicted using a bite mark on a victim’s buttock.)

Whildin also recruits faculty from the nation’s high-profile labs. He hired a former director from the FBI’s crime lab in Quantico and a forensic toxicologist from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

One thing missing from the new program is men: Ninety percent of the students are female.

When it comes to crime fighting, “men tend to gravitate toward the gun-carrying jobs, ” Whildin said. Women take a more scholarly path.

***

Nationwide, women averaged 78 percent of the 1,250 students enrolled in 22 graduate and undergraduate programs accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, according to a 2008 report by Max M. Houck, former director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University.

Given the national hand-wringing over the underrepresentation of women in other science disciplines, forensic science could offer insight into what women are looking for, Houck argues.

“Somewhere in there is that little magnet of attraction that just draws them in,” he said. “Let’s find out what that is and see if we can apply it to other sciences.”

Women respondents to his survey said they were drawn to the field because of an early interest in science, a personal trauma or event (the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were mentioned frequently), or because they wanted to help society.

Those reasons resonate with Emily Rancourt, a 33-year-old professor in GMU’s forensic science program. Rancourt, a mother of four, was the first university-trained civilian crime scene investigator hired at the Prince William police department in 2002.

The most satisfying part of her job was “bringing justice to victims,” she said.

But she dates her interest in crime-solving to early adolescence, when she was transfixed by the Jeffrey Dahmer case. “I was always scared a serial murderer would come and murder me and my family,” she said.

In college, when she told her parents she wanted to pursue forensic science after graduation, “my mother was horrified,” she said. “I was a concert violinist, a figure skater, a girly girl.”

Her mother thought she would run away at the sight of a dead body.

To test her own conviction, Rancourt called the county medical examiner and asked if she could view an autopsy. The call came the next day at 6 a.m. for a man who had been decapitated in a car accident.

The medical examiner let her help, handing her the victim’s brain, heart, lungs and kidney to weigh. Afterward, he asked what she thought of the experience.

“It was disturbing,” she remembers saying. A natural feeling, he reassured her.

“No, I’m disturbed because I thought it was awesome,” she said.

***

Pure hair-raising human interest is what draws millions to tune in to “CSI,” “Forensic Files,” “Bones” or other shows that put a high-tech, scientific spin on the classic whodunit.

The “CSI effect” has been widely credited for galvanizing interest. Today’s shows are populated with female role models, including real-life professionals or fictional characters such as Temperance Brennan in “Bones” and Sara Sidle on “CSI.”

But it has also been criticized for giving the public false impressions of police work or exaggerated ideas of what can be proved through physical evidence. Rancourt said she once encountered a defense lawyer who thought it would be possible to lift a usable fingerprint off a chain-link fence, and a detective who wondered if they could find the image of a murderer reflected on a victim’s pupils in a surveillance video — just as on TV.

On the first day of an introductory class on crime scene analysis in July, Rancourt let her students use their TV-watching as a starting point for their investigating.

She flashed crime scene photos from a malicious-wounding case at a Subway sandwich shop in Prince William County and asked them to draw on what they had seen on television to identify potential evidence.

Her students pointed out a shoe left behind in the entryway that could be swabbed for DNA, as well as brochures spilled on the floor. “Possibly a struggle?” they assumed correctly.

Later she explained that although Hollywood detectives gather evidence, then race back to their labs to analyze it, real investigators either gather evidence or analyze it, not both. Either way, they fill out lots of paperwork.

“If you don’t like to take notes and fill out reports, I highly suggest you choose another career,” Rancourt said.

Other not-so-glamorous aspects of the job: 3 a.m. wake-up calls, dumpster diving and a decidedly un-Hollywood dress code.

Rancourt asked for a volunteer to display the type of uniform she wore to respond to chemical spills, or to buildings where the suspect was forced out with tear gas, or once to a suicide that left “brain matter all over the ceiling.”

“How does that feel?” Rancourt asked the student, after she was head-to-toe in the white paper suit. Next, Rancourt handed her plastic goggles and two layers of rubber gloves.

“Hot? Now imagine wearing a respirator and a 40-pound oxygen tank,” Rancourt said.

***

Heightened public awareness and a revolution in DNA technology that has overturned hundreds of convictions are bringing a new level of scrutiny to forensic science.

A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences found that crime labs need a “massive overhaul” to improve the science behind techniques long used in court to present physical evidence such as fingerprints, hair, guns, bite marks or handwriting.

The report spurred efforts already under way to create national standards for analyzing evidence, to certify scientists, and to accredit laboratories and universities.

Forensic science grew up largely in crime labs housed within law enforcement agencies with often-differing protocols and standards. So there is far less peer-reviewed research, compared with other disciplines that evolved in independent academic settings.

The American Academy of Forensic Sciences has created an accrediting commission to set the bar for curriculum, faculty and facilities for the proliferating programs. Today there are almost 40 accredited programs, including ones at George Washington University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Towson University. GMU is preparing to apply.

Kathy Reichs, who turned her forensic anthropology career into best-selling crime novels and the television series “Bones,” said she hopes the “enormous enthusiasm” that has been generated will lead to a stronger profession.

When fans ask her about how they can become forensic scientists, she advises them to get the best science education possible.

“A lot of kids get really excited about the forensic end of it, and they forget about the science end of it,” she said.

***

For Guszak, science is what put her on a path toward unearthing a mock crime scene in the midsummer heat. She majored in biology at GMU, with an emphasis in physiology and anatomy.

She was not sure she wanted to work in a laboratory, though, or in a hospital with all the “screaming and blood.” But she was always drawn to mysteries, and she thought she might be more comfortable with dead bodies.

“My mom is like, ‘Are you sure about this?’ ” she said.

Guszak wants to start her career working crime scenes as a death investigator, then go back to medical school to become a forensic pathologist, performing autopsies — inspecting wounds, bruises or bullet holes to determine what did the victims in.

So far, her experience with corpses is confined mostly to dissections in biology class, what she has seen on television and, now, to raccoons.

So she keeps digging.

As the hole got deeper on that July day, her professor suggested they might have to climb in to reach the bottom.

“Fun isn’t it, guys?” Rancourt asked. “Glamorous.”

Michael Alison Chandler is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, send e-mail
to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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