Students learn the science behind the sensationalism
About the Photo:
The first day of the forensic science class, students look for
"clues" on a human skull.
Forsensics: Irv Kornfield
Irv Kornfield directs the Molecular Forensics Laboratory, which is
an extension of his research in a branch of population genetics
known as molecular systematics.
Forsensics: Marcella Sorg
Despite the popularity of CSI and other television crime shows,
Marcella Sorg is wary of the media emphasis on the dark side of
human nature. She questions the impact of sensationalized crime
shows on viewers. However, she sees value in research patterns that
provide feedback to policymakers.
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The five student investigators were
told what to expect, but the reality was still a bit of a shock. They
had entered a room in the University of Maine Public Safety Building to
interview a woman about a domestic disturbance. Between quiet sobs, she
told them about the violent events of that afternoon. The students
examined the readily apparent bruises and scrapes on her arms and face,
and wanted to know if she had been injured elsewhere. That's when they
found dried blood in the woman's hair where she had been hit in the head
and a deep red abrasion in the shape of a boot sole from being kicked in
The students took notes and asked more questions, just as their
classmates were doing with the alleged perpetrator in another room down
the hall. When they were done collecting evidence, it was time to
compare notes, sort out conflicting accounts, review their findings and
Had this been a real crime investigation, a decision to make an arrest
would have depended on their conclusions
Welcome to SMS 120 – Introduction to Forensic Science, a new class
taught by Irv Kornfield, a UMaine professor in the School of Marine
Sciences and director of the university's Molecular Forensics
Laboratory. Domestic violence is just one of the topics he covers to
bridge the worlds of crime and science. In this case, he got assistance
from UMaine Public Safety officers Deb-orah Mitchell and Mark Coffey,
who worked with officer Robert Norman, a makeup artist often called upon
to create lifelike wounds and injuries as part of emergency management
training exercises. The details of the case, including the placement and
severity of injuries, came from police reports.
"Forensic science is a tool to support the law," says Kornfield. "The
integration of law and forensic science really culminates in the
investigation of crimes, particularly when crime scenes are first
investigated. That is the most critical step in the entire process, and
all of the other techniques are derivative of that. I want to give
students a clear understanding of what is involved and an opportunity to
experience what such analysis is like."
This fall, class enrollment easily reached the 75- student limit. Around
the nation, colleges, universities and even high schools are offering
new forensic science classes and degree programs in the wake of student
interest spurred by popular TV shows such as CSI (Crime Scene
Investigation). The UMaine class combines a review of the legal system
with investigative techniques that apply to biology and chemistry, as
well as to crime scenes.
Marcella Sorg, a lecturer in the class and a forensic anthropologist
certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology, also has seen
a heightened public interest in forensics. She gets calls every day from
high school and college students who want to know where to get a degree
in the subject.
"I tell them that forensics is an application of science," says Sorg, a
research associate in UMaine's Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public
Policy. "If they're interested in forensics, they should pursue whatever
science they are interested in — entomology, molecular biology,
anthropology — and then do the application. Forensics is about applying
science to forensic problems."
Students taking the UMaine class get a mix of both. They learn about
evidence standards and the laws authorizing police and citizens to make
arrests. They study DNA analysis, blood typing and the physics of
traffic accidents. Contrary to the glamour and drama displayed on
television crime shows, they learn to look for subtle clues that emerge
during a persistent search for evidence.
Most of the students in this year's class are taking it to fulfill a
general science requirement or because of an interest in the subject,
says Kornfield. However, some students have more serious plans.
For Diadem Strout of Addison, Maine, a sophomore in biology, the class
is career preparation. "I got interested in this back in seventh grade,"
she says, "and I intend to stay with it. I'd like to transfer to a
school with a forensic degree program."
Jodi Wyman of Stratton, Maine, a sophomore in chemistry, also plans to
go into a forensic science career. "I job shadowed with the police in
eighth grade, and we had a speaker at our school talk to us about police
work," she adds. "I'd like to approach forensics from the chemistry
In the first class last September, Kornfield had students don blue
gloves while he handed around a human skull. "Look at this skull
carefully. What does it tell you about the person?" he asked. "Was he or
she an adult or a child? Do you all know about the soft spot that slowly
closes on a child's skull as he or she grows? What do you see here?"
During the year, Kornfield gives students multiple opportunities to use
scientific skills — observation, hypothesis testing, knowledge of
biology, chemistry and physics — to recreate events and determine if a
crime was committed. For one exercise, he cordons off a room with yellow
police tape and draws the outline of a victim's body in chalk on the
floor. Footprints and discarded gloves are strategically placed.
Students must discern the orientation of the body and a likely sequence
When appropriate, he doesn't hesitate to bring in personal experience.
He once photographed car damage and skid marks from a traffic accident
on campus in which he was involved and used the photos to present an
analysis of the incident for students.
For extra credit, students can ride along with Bangor police officers on
"It's important for students to understand intuitively the scientific
method, the role of hypothesis testing, and research in general," says
Kornfield. "That theme is stressed throughout the course."
Despite the injury, trauma and death that are common fare for crime
investigators, Kornfield and Sorg are careful to avoid sensationalizing
the subject. "We're very sensitive to that," says Kornfield. "Some of
the images can be upsetting. There are Web sites that specialize in that
sort of thing, but we avoid them because we focus on the science."
Sorg agrees. "I talk to them about what's possible to discover in a
situation, what's not and what's beyond our capabilities. I'll talk to
them about chain of custody, maintaining the sanctity of the evidence,
and how the law works. I have a problem with exposing students to gory
by Nick Houtman
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.