Syracuse University Magazine

Analyzing the Evidence


Chemistry professor James T. Spencer, founder of SU’s Forensic Science Program (FSP), is not surprised by the high visibility of forensic laboratories in such popular television series as C.S.I., Cold Case, and Bones. “People have always been interested in mysteries,” says Spencer, whose office poster of Sherlock Holmes peering at test tubes reminds visitors that the greatest crime-scene analyst of all, real or imagined, was a chemist by training. “It’s just that since the 1990s, police professionals have looked increasingly to science for answers. As the action began moving from the streets to the labs, art followed life.” 

The academic action appears to be moving in a similar direction. Spencer, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence, introduced SU’s first forensic science course as a chemistry elective in 2002. Less than a decade later, an interdisciplinary M.S. degree program in forensic science, launched by Arts and Sciences last year, is among the most far-reaching graduate-level collaborations on campus, drawing faculty and learning resources from the Maxwell School and the colleges of Law and Human Ecology on campus, as well as the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, SUNY Upstate Medical University, and Onondaga County’s Wallie Howard Jr. Forensic Science Center. The curriculum consists of classes and laboratories offered directly by the program as well as cross-listed courses in 10 disciplines. A thriving undergraduate minor in forensic science attracts students pursuing career paths in fields ranging from engineering and health care to journalism and social work, and FSP college-credit courses are available through Project Advance to qualified students at 70 participating high schools in New York and New Jersey. All told, some 2,000 students registered for SU forensic science courses during academic year 2008-09, and a proposal for an undergraduate major is planned. According to Spencer, spectacular growth has not swayed FSP from its academic mission. “As part of a research university, we are preparing laboratory professionals for the most current forms of analysis and we are expanding the field through research,” he says. “I’m proud to say that we are one of only a few forensics programs in the country rooted squarely in the sciences.” 

Last fall, Syracuse’s leadership in the field won national recognition in the form of a $912,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice. Under terms of the award, FSP will conduct a two-year series of forensic science workshops on campus, bringing prominent researchers into contact with professionals from across the country for discussions on such subjects as DNA research, identifying remains, determining post-mortem interval (“time of death”), and quantitative methods in forensic problem-solving. Spencer heads a grant team consisting of FSP director Michael Sponsler of the chemistry department and anthropologists Shannon Novak of the Maxwell School and Ann Bunch, who teaches criminal justice at SUNY Brockport. “This project fits in well with our goal of making Syracuse University the clearing house for information in the forensic sciences,” Spencer says. Sponsler believes the workshops will provide rare opportunities for practitioners to exchange ideas on the future of the field. “In addition to learning what’s at the forefront of forensic science, the participants will help define the forefront,” he says.

Anita Zannin G’10, a master’s degree candidate, was already a working professional when admitted to the program. A protégé of Herbert L. MacDonell, a pioneer of modern forensic science, Zannin is a bloodstain pattern analyst at MacDonell’s laboratory in Corning, New York. “I became aware of the program when I accompanied Herb to Syracuse for a guest lecture he was giving,” says Zannin, who earned a bachelor’s degree at Buffalo State College. “I looked into it and found I would have an opportunity to expand my skills to other areas in forensic science while gaining a credential for teaching and for legal testimony.” Zannin’s presence in the program is mutually beneficial. “According to Herb MacDonell, Anita already knows more than many practicing forensic scientists,” Sponsler says. “She’ll teach bloodstain pattern analysis for us this summer.”

Kara Seaburg ’10, a psychology major, transferred from Roger Williams College in Rhode Island, attracted by SU’s minor in forensic science. In 2009, she served a summer internship at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia,  one of several internship opportunities available yearly to Syracuse FSP students. “Working at the center gave me hands-on experience with concepts I learned in class,” she says. “For example, I used forensic imagery software in real cases to generate images of what a missing child might look like today or how a suspected predator appeared in the past.” The process, known as age progression/age regression, is an effective tool in the recovery of abducted children. Completing the 18-credit minor helped Seaburg find out what kinds of forensic work appeal to her—and what kinds don’t. “In my forensic entomology class, we worked with two pig carcasses,” she says. “We had to collect maggots and analyze them as a way of determining time of death. I felt lucky to have a chance to do it—not too many schools give you an opportunity like that—but I also learned that working with insects is not exactly a career priority for me.”

The study of forensic science contains many of the currents that are shaping higher education at Syracuse. FSP’s inherently interdisciplinary subject matter is attracting students to become involved in faculty research projects and is fostering partnerships with other colleges and universities. While mastering the basics through traditional applications in law enforcement, social work, and medicine, students are engaging in civic life through internships with local police, domestic violence agencies, and medical examiners. Emerging applications of forensic science in anti-terrorism and information security are giving the field important international dimensions as well. “We did an inventory this past summer in which we identified 100 SU faculty members in six colleges whose research in some way touches on forensic science,” Spencer says. “That broad academic range is reflected in the need for many kinds of forensic scientists in the job market.” Citing a recent study by the U.S. Department of Labor, he says there is a current and foreseeable shortage of forensic laboratory professionals even as a glut of field investigators has developed. “I believe the need for lab analysts will grow even faster as we push our research agenda here in Syracuse,” Spencer says. “We’re bound to see new discoveries, new directions, and new techniques.” —David Marc

Forensics, Anyone?

spectrometer in classMurder mystery fans are likely to know the meaning of “dusting for prints” and most understand why medical examiners conduct autopsies. But “forensic science,” the general term covering such activities, is about more than smudges and blood stains. Professor Michael Sponsler, director of SU’s Forensic Science Program, defines the field as “science applied to law.” To determine tax fraud, for example, a forensic accountant must analyze financial records. A forensic psychiatrist is consulted to determine a defendant’s competence to stand trial. Forensics is derived from the Latin “forum,” a synonym for “public.” Since public standards are expressed in law, and science is a method for determining truth, forensic science refers to the process of testing assertions of fact to legal standards.