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.
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.