Watching a marathon of CSI might be entertaining, but it won't give viewers the most accurate portrayal of forensic science.
"Those shows are fascinating," said Dr. Robert Shaler, head of Penn State's new forensic science program. However, "Most people who watch them don't fully understand what forensic science is really like."
Before coming to Penn State, Shaler headed New York's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where he oversaw the effort to identify the 2,749 people who died in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. The office identified 58 percent of the victims, after more than three years of investigation. Shaler describes the team's exhaustive work in his book "Who They Were--Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story: The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing."
Such a staggering probe is not the norm in the life of a forensic scientist; however, how do educators make students aware of the grim truths of the field? "We show people what the reality is," said Shaler. "When people get into it, they see it is an incredibly interesting, problem-solving profession."
Another learning experience for students will involve their participation in outreach--whether it's assisting during a mystery weekend staged for alumni or programming for youth (Penn State Crime Scene Investigators is a popular summertime offering).
Dr. Rebecca Peterson, director of Outreach in the Eberly College of Science, explained: "It makes the students better scientists when they communicate what they know to lay audiences. Since they will have to discuss the scientific basis of their cases with families, victims and attorneys once they enter the profession, these outreach experiences enable them to refine their skills in informal settings."
Workshops for Attorneys
Shaler's vision for outreach programming also includes DNA and blood spatter analysis workshops for attorneys. Other opportunities down the line include a program for professionals on mass fatality management. "After 9/11 there has been an emphasis on educating first responders," Shaler said. "No emphasis has been placed on identifying bodies."
While at Penn State, Shaler will also continue to find new tools for genetic testing; his New York lab worked with groundbreaking techniques during its painstaking investigation, although new processes will have to be developed to identify badly degraded DNA. "It's an opportunity you have at a research institution that you don't have in government," he said.