Stephanie Sham, left, shines an alternative light source as Tara Petty… (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON…)
In the middle of a July heat wave, a circle of students knelt around a hole in the ground in a partly shaded grove at George Mason University, digging for dead bodies.
While gnats clung to their sweat, Amanda Guszak and her classmates filled five-gallon drums with discarded soil. Their professors, former crime scene investigators in Prince William County, broke the tedium with stories about their days on the police force — the time one exhumed the soupy graveyard remains of a puppy mill or the homicide scenes they worked with vultures circling overhead.
Finally the students’ hand trowels hit two mounds. They heard the telltale buzzing of flies, inhaled the acrid whiff of rot.
“It doesn’t smell that bad,” Guszak, 24, said hopefully, as they began digging to reveal what classmates had buried for the exercise. A theory emerged: double raccoon-icide.
These are the graduate school days Guszak likes best, working on mock crime scenes that preview what a career as a death investigator working for a medical examiner might be like. So far, she’s optimistic. “It’s everything you see on TV and more,” she said.
Guszak is the face of the booming field of forensic science: female, educated and raised with “CSI” and “Bones.”
The popularity of prime-time mysteries is helping to recruit a new generation of amateur sleuths, and universities are clamoring to respond. The three-year-old forensic science program at GMU is one of hundreds to spring up in the past 15 years.
The program aims to be at the forefront of a movement to build up the academic base of a field with a tradition of apprenticeship that has come under heightened scrutiny.
As forensic science comes of age, it will likely be led, unlike nearly every other scientific discipline, by women.
Forensic science, or science that’s used in court or the justice system, is relatively new to academia.
The earliest well-known forensic science program started at Michigan State University in 1946, but few followed suit. Most forensic scientists came up through law enforcement or were recruited from other science-degree programs.
But since the 1990s, the number of degree or certificate programs has proliferated.
William Whildin, who spent three decades as an investigator for the Fairfax County Police Department and the Virginia medical examiner’s office, started the program at GMU because he wanted to advance the field by improving training.
His first “Introduction to Forensic Science” class in fall 2009 had three students. Three years later, nearly 200 are enrolled in one of two graduate programs, and about 100 are pursuing an undergraduate degree.
Classes include forensic toxicology, forensic chemistry, criminal law, DNA, anthropology and crime scene analysis. In a forensic photography class, students learn to use blue lights and special lenses to capture fingerprint detail and a reagent to reveal washed-away blood. For a new forensic art class this fall, students will study the structure of skulls to ascertain the sex, race and age, and re-create facial features in clay or by computer.
Whildin thanks television for doing most of his marketing. He also credits a growing job market. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that jobs for forensic science technicians will outpace average job growth, increasing by 19 percent between 2010 and 2020.
Median pay is $51,570, with salaries starting closer to $30,000 and exceeding $80,000. The nation’s capital is a hot spot with more and better-paying jobs available at federal agencies, as well as local and state agencies.
Whildin invites weekly speakers to showcase forensic careers: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a crime lab for investigating animal poaching on wildlife reserves; the National Transportation Safety Board investigates mass-transit accidents; dentists trained in forensic science analyze victims’ bite marks. (Serial rapist Ted Bundy was famously convicted using a bite mark on a victim’s buttock.)
Whildin also recruits faculty from the nation’s high-profile labs. He hired a former director from the FBI’s crime lab in Quantico and a forensic toxicologist from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.
One thing missing from the new program is men: Ninety percent of the students are female.
When it comes to crime fighting, “men tend to gravitate toward the gun-carrying jobs, ” Whildin said. Women take a more scholarly path.
Nationwide, women averaged 78 percent of the 1,250 students enrolled in 22 graduate and undergraduate programs accredited by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, according to a 2008 report by Max M. Houck, former director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University.
Given the national hand-wringing over the underrepresentation of women in other science disciplines, forensic science could offer insight into what women are looking for, Houck argues.