Home to natural wonders like the Northern Lights, Glacier Bay, Mt. McKinley, and the Denali wilderness, Alaska has many diverse communities and cultures in and around its main urban areas. However, this idyllic landscape is not immune to crime.
A new 84,000 square foot Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory was opened in 2011 with the mission to “provide forensic services to the Alaskan community through scientific analysis, integrity, and training.” The new lab replaced the original 19,000 square foot structure to account for the growing lab staff and caseloads. The staff has doubled since its opening in the 1980s, due to higher crime rates, changes in legislation, and technological advancements.
Aspiring forensic scientists have viable educational and professional opportunities in the state of the last frontier, whether they already call it home or feel compelled “north to the future,” as coined by journalist Richard Peter and adopted as the state motto in 1967.
The field of forensic science calls for professionals with integrity, good judgment, a strong foundation in the sciences (biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, physics) and knowledge of civil and criminal law. Professional opportunities in the field include working in crime scene units and laboratories with local police, county sheriff’s departments, city police departments, state highway patrol, federal law enforcement, and in private crime lab and investigation practices.
Those seeking to study forensic science in Alaska have several options, although as of 2019 none are accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). This is not necessarily a reflection of program quality, as FEPAC accredits relatively few programs nationally and only those in forensic science. There are also out-of-state forensic science program options for residents of Alaska.
The job prospects for forensic science professionals in Alaska are favorable. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), job openings for forensic technicians are expected to grow 17 percent nationally between 2016 and 2026, adding 2,600 fresh openings. Compared to the 7 percent average project growth for all occupations, aspiring forensic scientists are expected to be in relatively high demand in the years ahead.
Read on to discover how to become a forensic science specialist in Alaska through detailed information about featured in- and out-of-state programs, curriculum, career pathways, and accreditation.
The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks offers a bachelor’s of arts degree in chemistry and biochemistry with a concentration in forensic chemistry. Designed to prepare future research chemists, doctors, and lab technicians, the program offers students the opportunity to complement their studies in chemistry with other disciplines in the social sciences, arts or humanities.
The Department of Chemistry at UAF is the only one in the state with accreditation from the American Chemical Society’s Committee on Professional Training.
Additionally, the UAF Justice Department administers online and on-campus programs in criminal justice, including a 120-credit bachelor of arts (BA) in justice and a 30-credit master of arts (MA) in the administration of justice. Topics included in these degree programs are criminology, corrections, law, addictive processes, and the sociological forces underlying crime. The school has partnered with a number of justice agencies to give its students hands-on opportunities in the field to complement their theoretical knowledge.
The Justice Center at the University of Alaska, Anchorage administers an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts in justice that prepares students for a variety of scholarly and professional endeavors.
The Community & Technical College of UAF offers an associate of applied science (AAS) degree in information technology with a concentration in network and cybersecurity—a field related to digital forensics—which provides students with a foundation in computer programming, network support and administration, server operating systems, and computer and network security.
Focused study in Cisco Systems networking and cybersecurity builds upon students’ foundational knowledge and provide specialized instruction in network infrastructure, services, and security. This program is available in 100 percent online, through on-campus instruction, and in a hybrid format.
Since there are relatively few colleges offering forensic science disciplines, here are a few out-of-state options for Alaska’s students, in addition to the abundance of online forensics programs available across the country.
Students can earn a bachelor’s of science (BS) degree in criminal justice with a specialization in forensic science at Seattle University. The program prepares students to become responsible criminal justice leaders and is grounded in the virtues of reflection and action. Coursework can be supplemented with an internship or research position, providing students with the opportunity to gain work and research experience in criminal justice before graduation.
A bachelor’s of arts (BA) in criminal justice with a specialization in forensic science is also available. However, this path does not qualify students for careers as crime lab forensic scientists or medicolegal death investigators, as the BA is designed for criminal justice majors seeking to gain a strong foundation in physical science.
Students can also enroll in a BA or BS in forensic psychology. Students wishing to work in as a crime lab forensic scientist after graduation or pursue graduate study in forensics are advised to take the BS option. The should also consider a double major (or minor) in chemistry, take additional physics courses, and obtain an internship.
Students planning to work in medico-legal death investigation are encouraged to double major in biology, take all biology courses available, and apply for an internship with the medical examiner’s office or a similar agency.
Notably, the school also offers an online crime analysis certificate, which comprises 25 credits of courses such as statistical analysis, advanced research methods in criminology and criminal justice, advanced crime assessment, data and intelligence analysis, and crime mapping. Students can also choose from electives including issues in contemporary law enforcement, terrorism and homeland security, and qualitative research methods in criminology and criminal justice, among others. This program takes one to two years to complete.
Providence College in Rhode Island administers a bachelor of science (BS) in forensic science with several options. Students can enroll in a biology or chemistry track, minor in forensic science, or concentrate in forensic investigation.
This program focuses on mathematics and hard science through a variety of laboratory-based classes. Specific program learning objectives include the accurate interpretation of scientific and laboratory evidence, the ability to analyze evidence using laboratory skills, the accurate and succinct communication of scientific information, and the appropriate collection of crime scene evidence.
Summer internships are plentiful and afford students the opportunity to gain work experience in crime laboratories in Montana and beyond. Providence emphasizes the uniqueness of its forensics degree as being entirely focused on the study of forensic sciences.
Flathead Valley Community College in Montana offers an associate of arts (AA) or associate of science (AS) degree in forensic science. Students have the option of transferring to the University of Montana at Missoula to continue their students in forensic chemistry and take advantage of internship and work-study opportunities at the Montana state crime laboratory.
A bachelor’s degree in chemistry or forensic chemistry is available for students seeking careers in toxicology, controlled substances or chemistry areas of crime labs at UM Missoula. Those planning to work in serology or DNA are advised to study biology or forensic biology in preparation for employment in those areas of crime laboratories.
Law enforcement agents, forensic scientists and other justice professionals who wish to fulfill continuing education requirements can also complete a certificate in forensic studies.
In addition to general education requirements, students seeking to specialize in forensic science may have science and math prerequisites to fulfill before gaining entry to the criminal justice major. Prospective students should consult an advisor prior to enrollment to confirm the appropriate sequence and progression of coursework. In addition to core criminology and forensic science courses, students may have the option to choose from elective courses.
The following covers a sampling of courses forensic science students can expect to take.
|Forensic science courses
Forensic scientists investigate the physical evidence from criminal acts. They collect, identify, classify, and analyze evidence from crime scenes, such as conducting tests on weapons and substances (fiber, hair, tissue, etc.) to determine their significance to a criminal investigation. They may also be called upon to testify during court proceedings and trials as expert witnesses depending on their qualifications. Forensic scientists often serve as experts in specialized areas like fingerprinting, handwriting, biochemistry, and ballistics.
In most states, the minimum qualification for work as a forensic scientist is a bachelor’s of science degree. Additional and more specific degrees, coursework, certifications, and specializations may be required based on a professional’s chosen career path.
The Alaska State Crime Lab outlines the minimum qualifications for the position of a level one forensic scientist:
Certification in the area of forensics an aspiring professional plans to pursue as a career is advantageous, as it attests to one’s expertise. It also demonstrates a commitment to the field and excellence in practice.
The National Commission on Forensic Science recommends that forensic science practitioners become certified in relevant areas of testing within one year of eligibility. Certification organizations and their testing areas include:
For detailed information about credentialing, please visit any of the specific forensics programs pages.
Jocelyn Blore is the chief content officer of Sechel Ventures and the co-author of the Women Breaking Barriers series. She graduated summa cum laude from UC Berkeley and traveled the world for five years. She also worked as an addiction specialist for two years in San Francisco. She’s interested in how culture shapes individuals and systems within societies—one of the many themes she writes about in her blog, Blore’s Razor (Instagram: @bloresrazor). She has served as managing editor for several healthcare websites since 2015.