EDMOND — Christiana Burgess had no problem dusting the black Honda Ridgeline pickup for fingerprints at the mock crime scene.
Burgess, however, does struggle when it comes to convincing friends to watch television shows like “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds” or “CSI” with her.
Burgess, 23, is a senior studying forensic science and criminal justice at the University of Central Oklahoma's W. Roger Webb Forensic Science Institute. Her passion for the field can be traced to seventh grade when she came across a book on forensic anthropology. She didn't start following the crime scene investigation shows until after she'd taken classes at UCO.
“Nobody watches them with me,” she said. “First, I'm always pointing out this or that doesn't work that way. And second, I can often figure it out in the first 15 minutes.
“I still enjoy them for the most part.”
The Forensic Science Institute opened in 2009 with about 100 students. Currently, more than 500 students are enrolled in either undergraduate or graduate studies.
Some graduates have found work in the field, such as at a private DNA laboratory and with the state medical examiner's office, police departments in the Oklahoma City metro area and Kansas City, said Dwight Adams, director of the Forensic Science Institute.
A popular field
Adams, who retired after a 23-year career with the FBI, said the reason so many people are intrigued with this field of study is likely because of “the amount of television that provides the students with the opportunity to see this career in action.”
“Whereas the shows may not always be 100 percent accurate and depict exactly what the work is about, they are great motivators; they are great recruiters,” said Adams, a former director of the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va.
“They have given us a leg up in the competition for students and their choice in degree programs. This is an interesting career to get into, and they get to experience it right here with the kind of faculty that we have who have done this job for years.”
Those 10 faculty members represent 300 years of law enforcement and forensic science experience, he said.
Crime scene processing
The “interesting career” part of Adams' comment speaks for itself. On a recent day, students walked outside their UCO classroom, and just yards away was the pickup, bordered by “Do Not Cross” crime-scene tape.
Within the cordoned-off area, yellow numerical markers were placed beside the facedown victim (a mannequin); three used shotgun shells; a paper cup; a purse; a key ring with keys and a latched pepper spray holster; and silver shoes a few inches from the victim.
Responsibilities varied for the students in John Mabry's crime scene processing class.
But after working the scene using what the FBI calls a 12-step process, the students returned to the classroom where Mabry, an assistant professor at the Forensic Science Institute and in the School of Criminal Justice, talked about sketching and diagramming.
Mabry retired after 23 years with the FBI, including work in the Child Abduction and Serial Killer Unit. He and Wayne Lord, associate professor at the institute, were profilers at Quantico.
Different from TV
Mabry agrees television shows are a motivator for many students to study forensic science or criminal profiling.
In class, students occasionally mention an episode they saw the night before and perhaps a technique that was used.
“You kind of have to remind them that is Hollywood and everything's solved in 60 minutes, and that's not quite the way it works,” he said.
“The same with the crime scene, they watch ‘CSI,' and they see some techniques on TV, some of which are doable, some which are not. Most of which are not doable in 60 minutes.
“However, it motivates them to come here.”
Adams said the Forensic Science Institute is attracting interest from students not only from across the United States but also from other countries, including China and Germany.
And some potential employers are calling the institute directly to let them know of openings, he said.
“When you look at why the forensics institute is successful,” Adams said, “in addition to faculty, there are the facilities which are dedicated to forensic science training. Then on top of those factors are friends like the OSBI Crime Lab right across the street and the AT&T Cyber Security & Digital Evidence Laboratory right here in our building. Those are law enforcement working labs that allow our students to do internships and to get the benefit of seeing real-life law enforcement work.”
Kacey Brown, 23, of Oklahoma City, is a first-year graduate student focusing on forensic anthropology and osteology. Like Burgess, it wasn't TV shows that ignited Brown's interest.
“I've just always loved forensics since ninth grade, and I did my undergraduate in forensic anthropology, as well,” Brown said.
“I hope to work for the FBI one day, doing forensic anthropology, doing exhumations, things like that.”
A changed perspective
After completing her undergraduate work, Burgess wants to go to law school and some day use her forensic background for prosecution.
By that time, she'll have analyzed plenty of situations, both in and out of the classroom.
“Especially even in real life, I'm always looking for the small details,” she said. “Every time I drive past a car wreck, I want to figure out what happened. Or even hearing stories on the news, there are certain things that I've learned that make me automatically kind of go one way or the other.
“So it's definitely changed my perspective on a lot of things.”