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.