Those who practice forensics are essentially scientific detectives. They must reconstruct an event after the fact, through the study of biology, chemistry, and technology. Forensic professionals study ballistics, toxicology, questionable documents, fingerprints, DNA, and trace evidence. Their findings help to convict the guilty and exonerate the innocent.
As innovation in science and technology continues, the scope and capabilities of forensic professionals grow in tandem. As such, it is no surprise that the need for forensic professionals is projected to rise much faster than the national average, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The field of forensics is changing fast. There is a significant need for digital forensics services in particular and a bevy of public and private investments going into developing best practices for human resources, which is stronger than ever now that more people are working remotely from home. However, innovation is not limited to the digital space. Plenty of money is being poured into the more long-standing areas of forensic science, as well.
As the discipline changes, innovation at the ground level is crucial. Read on to learn about the five most innovative university forensic labs, and what they are doing to stay ahead of the curve.
The following factors were considered when selecting laboratories for this list.
Oglebay Hall is where West Virginia University’s Department of Forensic and Investigative Science is located. This 18,000-square-foot facility was fully renovated in 2007 and includes faculty offices, teaching laboratories, and research laboratories. In addition, the onsite instrumentation and associated software were upgraded in 2016, giving students access to the latest technology available in the field of forensics.
Oglebay Hall is designed for specialized areas in microscopy, forensic chemistry, latent prints, questioned documents, DNA, and trace evidence. The attached Cogent Systems Laboratory boasts 12 ten-print and 12 latent print workstations, three live scan devices for electronically capturing prints, and an integrated ballistics identification system (IBIS) for bullet and shell casing analysis.
Standing alongside Oglebay Hall is WVU’s Crime Scene Training Complex, the largest complex of its kind in the country. It comprises four crime scene houses, a ballistics test center, a vehicle processing garage, and other specialized outdoor venues in the surrounding area providing realistic simulations of fieldwork scenarios. In addition, the training complex acts as a laboratory setting for multiple crime scene investigation courses at the university and continuing education training programs for working professionals.
WVU is the first university to offer a bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree in general forensic science, and Oglebay Hall acts as a center of excellence for all levels of practice in the field, where faculty, students, and professionals intermingle. In addition, these forensic science programs hold distinguished accreditation status through the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC).
West Lafayette, IN
The Purdue Cybersecurity and Forensics Laboratory is a leading computer forensics research facility associated with Purdue University’s Polytechnic Institute. The lab is focused on the emerging need for digital forensics and provides cybersecurity and cyber forensics education at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral level. In addition, the lab specializes in applied and basic research in education and training and provides additional investigative support to law enforcement. By zeroing in on digital forensics specifically, the laboratory can isolate the nuanced and contextual theoretical challenges of the future and perfect cutting-edge solutions for contemporary cyber-related issues.
The laboratory’s assistant dean for cybersecurity initiatives, Dr. Marcus Rogers, has more than 18 years of consulting experience in internet technology security. He has advised and worked alongside professionals at the highest level in the public and private sectors. In addition, the laboratory has a long history of collaboration, sharing best practices, uncovering trends, and driving research forward with law enforcement agencies, the intelligence community, and other private entities.
One such current collaboration is a partnership with the Tippecanoe County High Tech Crime Unit (HTCU), which promotes the sharing of investigative resources and co-examination of digital evidence—providing students at the lab with real-world experience and new research topics while simultaneously aiding law enforcement in ongoing investigations. The results have been highly positive. For example, in 2010, law enforcement reached out to Purdue’s Cybersecurity & Forensics Laboratory about a murder case with no witnesses, video, DNA, photos, nor a gun. Dr. Rogers turned the case over to his doctoral students, and their efforts led to a conviction.
East Lansing, MI
Michigan State University offers an array of hands-on experiences in forensic science and criminology and has two laboratories focused on teaching forensic anthropology and forensic chemistry.
The Michigan State University Forensic Anthropology Laboratory (MSUFAL) is affiliated with the Department of Anthropology, located in Giltner Hall. This academic unit offers contract services to forensic investigators in identifying human and non-human remains to help law enforcement determine if additional analysis is necessary for an investigation. In addition, forensic scientists and law enforcement teams can bring remains to the laboratory.
Students and faculty from MSUFAL also travel to medical examiners offices in Michigan to conduct radiographic identifications. This provides conclusive evidence of the sex, age, ancestry, and stature of unidentified remains. This evidence is screened against national databases to identify missing persons. In addition, if trauma is present, the MSUFAL team can hypothesize the timing and type of injury that may have resulted in the cause of death. Finally, in the case of larger projects, forensic science researchers at MSU travel around the state and regional areas to systematically recover skeletal remains.
MSU also features a FEPAC-accredited master of science with a forensic chemistry track. The MSU forensic chemistry laboratory is housed in the chemistry building. It offers a scientific laboratory, office, and computer laboratory space to practice using equipment such as mass spectrometry and UV-visible spectrometers.
Virginia’s Department of Forensic Science (DFS) provides forensic services to more than 400 law enforcement agencies while remaining independent of each of them. In addition, the department has partnered with the FEPAC-accredited graduate forensic science program at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) since 1984. The DFS consists of a central laboratory in Richmond and several satellite laboratories in Roanoke, Norfolk, and Manassas. The four regional facilities cover various forensic areas, including controlled substances, DNA, ballistics, biology, multimedia, latent prints, toxicology, questioned documents, trace evidence, and training.
With its strong network of agencies, educators, and professionals, the DFS strives to continually advance forensic science in the Commonwealth of Virginia through quality, integrity, and impartiality. In addition, they have abundant governmental, professional, and academic resources to back them up on their mission.
DFS has always been at the forefront of forensic innovation in Virginia, especially in DNA forensics. The organization was the first state laboratory to offer DNA analysis to law enforcement, the first to create a DNA databank of convicted sex offenders, and an early adopter of recording DNA samples from felony arrestees. Over time, they added the capability for familial search through the DNA databank and have racked up tens of thousands of “hits” dating back to long before such practice entered the mainstream.
The Forensic Sciences Institute (FSI) at North Carolina State University takes a modern and interdisciplinary approach to the progression of forensic science. It boasts 21 active faculty members across seven colleges, a growing list of collaborators and stakeholders, and a freshly acquired $4 million in federal funding. In collaboration with the state’s Department of Justice and Office of the Medical Examiner, the institute’s stated aim is to provide research, education, outreach, and collaborative services in forensic science to communities within universities and at the state and global level.
The institute takes a three-pronged approach to forensic science, focusing on specializations such as forensic anthropology, forensic chemistry, and forensic entomology—each with its world-class laboratory to match. The research is further varied with topics as diverse as wildfire forensics, virtual crime scene analysis, forensic textiles, and the geometric morphometric classification of crania. Research is led by faculty from various disciplines, including clinical sciences, textile engineering, and molecular and biomedical sciences.
The FSI also collaborates with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) to host a series of Technology Transition Workshops designed to facilitate the integration of novel technologies into contemporary practice. These workshops highlight technologies developed through the NIJ’s forensic science research and development programs. They act as a critical step in the testing and analysis phase.
The institute also hosts specialized workshops on forensic photography and forensic image-processing taught by retired field agents. Each year the FSI hosts a symposium on the state of forensic science, both at NCSU and throughout the community at large.
Matt Zbrog is a writer and researcher from Southern California. Since 2018, he’s written extensively about the increasing digitization of investigations, the growing importance of forensic science, and emerging areas of investigative practice like open source intelligence (OSINT) and blockchain forensics. His writing and research are focused on learning from those who know the subject best, including leaders and subject matter specialists from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and the American Academy of Forensic Science (AAFS). As part of the Big Employers in Forensics series, Matt has conducted detailed interviews with forensic experts at the ATF, DEA, FBI, and NCIS.