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Exploring the Science Behind Crime Scenes in Juniata Forensic Course

(Posted January 26, 2004)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. ? They won?t be traveling to glamorous Las Vegas or Miami
to investigate murders like the scientists on the popular ?CSI? series, but a select group of chemistry and biology majors at Juniata College will be learning how to analyze fingerprints, test for explosives residue, identify trace evidence and many other forensic techniques as part of a new chemistry course called ?Forensic Science.?

The spring-semester course, which runs through May, will give science majors a solid background in using analytical instruments in the service of forensic analysis. ?This course is designed for students who are highly motivated to become a forensic scientist,? says Richard Hark, associate professor of chemistry at Juniata. ?We will give the students a chance to really familiarize themselves with the techniques and technology that they would find in a typical forensics lab.?

Although the students will not perform their lab work in the jazzily-lit, high-tech sanctums TV viewers are used to seeing on ?CSI,? they will be using state-of-the-art equipment and techniques. Hark, while not a forensic scientist, has ample experience at one aspect of forensic analysis ? fingerprinting.

Hark?s main area of research is in fingerprint technology. He has collaborated with the U.S. Secret Service and international fingerprint experts in Switzerland, the United Kingdon and Israel in developing better reagents for ?visualizing?fingerprints (making a fingerprint appear) on porous surfaces such as paper.

Not surprisingly, the course, which is divided into four sections, will begin with an indelible excursion into fingerprint technology. The students will visualize prints using powders and use a variety of reagents such as ninhydrin, silver nitrate and iodine fuming to make fingerprints appear on porous surfaces. ?These technologies have been around since the ?50s,? Hark explains. ?We will be working on developing better reagents for fingerprint visualization as well.?

The next section of the course will cover techniques for gathering trace evidence. The class will collect and analyze hair, fibers, paint, glass and soil. In this section, Hark will introduce the students to an analytical instrument called a Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (called a LIBS, by those in the know). Essentially the instrument can identify the unique light wavelengths emitted when a surface is exposed to concentrated laser light. ?We will be using the LIBS to analyze paint samples,? Hark says. ?A LIBS instrument has not been used much in forensic labs, so we may be breaking new ground for this instrument.?

The students also will examine evidence using simple microscopes and take casts and impressions of tire marks and footprints. ?A typical lab experience will be to take a footprint from one of our faculty members and then send the students out to discover which shoe fits the print,? Hark says.

In addition, the students also will examine soil samples through one of Juniata?s newest scientific instruments, a scanning electron microscope, or SEM. The SEM will reveal each element that comprises an individual soil sample.

The class will then move on to cover drug analysis. The class will use such instruments as a gas chromatograph (which separates a sample into individual components) - mass spectrometer (which identifies each component in the sample), as well as a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer (called an FTIR), which is used to analyze drug samples in solid or powdered form. Using special educational samples that contain trace amounts of illegal drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, morphine and other substances, the students will conducts tests to identify whether narcotics are present in a sample. ?The students also will get experience using direct chemical tests,? Hark explains. ?This is something people see on television where a crime technician uses a treated cotton swab that turns a certain color if drugs are present in the sample.?

The fourth section of the course will concentrate on analysis of arson and explosives.
This section will be team-taught by Hark and Frank Dorman, director of research technology at Restek Corp. in Bellefonte, Pa. The class will burn small models using various accelerants such as gasoline, kerosene or lighter fluid, and then use forensic instrument to identify what substance was used to burn the model. In addition, Dorman will supply samples of residues typically left by explosions of dynamite (or TNT), so the class can use instruments to identify the residues that often coat objects that were in the vicinity of an explosion.

Hark also plans to incorporate forensic entomology into the course if time permits. Jay Hosler, assistant professor of biology, will help Hark and the students analyze the decomposing body of a pig or a deer -- learning how to identify flies and beetles that typically infest dead animal carcasses. ?We will make several visits to the site to collect samples, as well as maggots and larvae from the dead animal,? Hark says.

The class also will visit the forensic labs for the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI on a field trip to Washington, D.C. Hark believes the Forensic Science course will make it clear to interested students just how much time and dedication is needed to pursue forensics as a career.

?There is a lot of good science on those TV shows, but there is a big difference between sitting in your living room and going out and doing the science, which is very difficult,? he says.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.