A Magazine for the George Mason University Community

Turns Out, Crime Does Pay

By Mason Spirit contributor on October 28, 2016

Inch by inch, students carefully make their way around a grid placed on a muddy forensic excavation and research site on the Fairfax Campus. Their assignment: to unearth evidence in a staged outdoor crime scene.

It’s the stuff of hit TV drama series. But for these students, the day’s rain-soaked efforts deliver far more than drama. They deliver real-life forensic science training, critical to qualifying for a career that already is waiting for them.

Demand for forensic scientists is skyrocketing, as is the interest in high-quality forensic science training. The College of Science has responded. Begun as a graduate certificate program in 2009, the Forensic Science Program added a master’s degree in 2010 and a bachelor’s degree in 2011.

Forensic dig field work being done by Mason students. Photo courtesy of Emily Rancourt

Forensic dig fieldwork being done by Mason students. Photo courtesy of Emily Rancourt

And more growth is in sight. The entire program is on the brink of major initiatives that will distinguish it from other forensic science programs in the United States.

When retired FBI criminal profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole came on board as director in spring 2015, one of her early priorities was to survey the ideas and expertise of her faculty.

Together, they developed creative new ventures for the program. The new concentration in Forensic/Biometric Identity Analysis is a perfect example. Starting this fall, it is the only concentration of its kind in the nation and one of four concentrations that master’s candidates can choose for their degree program.

Also underway is a partnership with the Northern Laboratory of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science facility in Prince William County where actual crime scene evidence is submitted for analysis. Beginning this fall, College of Science students will take lecture courses at the facility and use its DNA and controlled substance laboratories for training purposes.

In both current and upcoming training opportunities, every aspect of education in the Forensic Science Program is relentlessly realistic. Hands-on labs are integrated with lectures. Guest speakers open students’ eyes to less well-known careers in the field. Chemists, DNA analysts, and crime scene investigators interact as a team.

“I can’t underscore enough how our training sets us apart,” says O’Toole, who was one of the most senior FBI profilers in the elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, the inspiration for the TV show Criminal Minds. “When our students come here, they don’t just read a book or two about forensic science. They get their hands dirty. They work with real equipment. It’s this kind of hands-on experience that makes a difference when you apply for a job.”


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