The flashy television show “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” debuted nine years ago as an innovative new type of drama that featured characters using cutting-edge tools to examine forensic evidence and solve a case.

Jason Linville, director of UAB’s Master of Science in Forensic Sciences, says many students miss the “science” in forensic science, thinking instead they will get to run around solving crimes and catching criminals as they see on T.V.
The cop show — more about the howdunit than the whodunit — was the most watched television show in the world in 2007 with an astonishing 84 million viewers, and is still one of the most-watched shows on television.
So when the director of UAB’s Master of Science in Forensic Sciences (MSFS) Program talks to students interested in studying forensic science, he always asks one specific question: Do you really enjoy science?

“Unfortunately when some students start to figure out the study of forensic science is more or less the study of chemistry or biology, they go through their first set of general chemistry classes and say, ‘Forget this; I thought this was going to be running around solving crimes and catching criminals,’” says Jason Linville, Ph.D., “They don’t realize forensic science is going to be chemistry, organic chemistry and laboratory bench work.

“But that’s essentially what it is — a laboratory career where the evidence is submitted to you, and you conduct the analysis,” Linville says. “And the type of analysis you’re conducting is just like any other analytical chemistry or molecular biology techniques.”

UAB offers the MSFS through the Department of Justice Sciences. The program is designed to train individuals to apply scientific methods and technologies to legal proceedings and to prepare individuals for careers in various forensic science and conventional analytical laboratories. With more than 25 years of history, the program has developed an excellent national and international reputation and has a stellar placement record for its graduates.

The Forensic Science Education Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) — established in 2004 — accredited the program in February, and it is one of only 10 accredited master of forensic science programs in the country.

“Because of the popularity of forensic science there were many programs popping up calling themselves forensic science programs, but they really focused more on the crime-scene side of it,” Linville says. “FEPAC wants to establish that programs that call themselves forensic science programs are really focused on the laboratory side of forensic science and are biology- and chemistry-based programs, and not criminal justice and investigation-type of programs.”

Forensic science courses provide students classroom and laboratory exposure to the field of criminalistics — such as forensic serology, trace evidence and drug chemistry — and familiarization with the related areas of forensic toxicology and forensic pathology. The program emphasizes the development of problem-solving skills and encourages concentration in at least one forensic science specialty area. It also exposes students to relevant laboratory techniques and medico-legal developments.

Students also benefit from casework experiences gained via internships with practicing forensic scientists and laboratories, including with the Alabama State Department of Forensic Science.

“Forensic science covers a broad area, and students really have to determine the area they are interested in,” Linville says. “It’s not just a criminal investigation and the crime lab stuff, it’s also areas like forensic anthropology or forensic psychology or even becoming a medical examiner and performing autopsies. All of those career paths require a different starting point in your education.”

Wanted: Good scientists
While many students initially are drawn to forensic science because of the Holly-wood aspect, Linville says the opposite also is true. Sometimes students don’t realize forensic science academic programs are looking for aspiring scientists — not detectives.

“Some students think they need a major or minor in criminal justice, but we just want good scientists — good chemists and biologists,” Linville says. “We can provide them with the coursework, teaching them how to apply the knowledge they already have to the forensic laboratory settings.”

The job possibilities also extend far beyond police work. Students who emerge from the graduate program are very competitive for jobs in federal, state and private forensic labs.

“Forensic science field jobs aren’t the only ones available to our graduates,” Linville says. “They’re going to be trained depending on the area they focus on as an analytical chemist or molecular biologist. They can get a job in any type of analytical lab. They can work for a pharmaceutical company if they want to do analytical chemistry. On the molecular biology side they can work for a genetic research lab at UAB Hospital.

“It’s really a flexible degree; we just give them that additional training on how to apply their knowledge to the forensic field so they have one more option.”