UWP criminalistics program provides students with hands-on CSI experience

October 25, 2002

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PLATTEVILLE - While they may not be collecting DNA samples to solve murder cases yet, students enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Platteville criminalistics program are taking their first steps toward careers that delve into the analytical side of crime.

Developed in the mid-1970s, UWP was one of the first universities in the country to offer a criminalistics program. The program, which falls under the department of chemistry, is often taken by students who double major in chemistry and criminal justice, with an emphasis in criminalistics. In the past several years, popularity of the program has taken off.

"In the last three years, since the CBS television drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, came on TV, enrollment in our criminalistics program has rapidly increased," said Charles Cornett, assistant professor of chemistry. "We currently have about 45 students in the program who are working toward a full degree in chemistry with an emphasis in criminalistics. Offering an emphasis in criminalistics strengthens both our chemistry and criminal justice departments, so our students' qualifications are very competitive when they enter the job market."

Students in the criminalistics program at UWP use standard equipment used by crime lab professionals. For example, students use a gaschromotography-mass spectrometry to analyze samples such as blood alcohol content, arsenical residues and other volatile substances. Students also use techniques such as fourier transform-infrared spectroscopy to identify and distinguish between various precursors to methamphetamine.

"Because criminalistics ties into crime lab procedures so heavily, we only use techniques that are admissible in the court system," Cornett said. "And it's very difficult to get new techniques approved by the court, with the exception of DNA analysis. So far, however, we have done little with DNA, but if approved, DNA analysis will be a substantial part of our new curriculum proposed for next fall."

To graduate with an emphasis in criminalistics, students are required to complete 65 credits in the program and a 10-week internship. Two types of internships are available to students, working in a state crime lab facility or doing research and development of new crime lab technology.

This summer, undergraduate student Adrienne Fuchs of Sandwich, Ill., completed a research internship with the Wausau State Crime Lab in collaboration with UWP and Cornett.

"The major goal of the project was to be able to distinguish between a controlled substance used in making methamphetamine and a substance found in cold medicines, also used in making methamphetamine, by using a gas chromatograph instruments," Fuchs said. "The two compounds used to make methamphetamine are so close in structure that the current instruments used are unable to distinguish between the compounds.

"The Wausau State Crime Lab was interested in the project because its drug analysts need a reliable way to distinguish between the two, due to the fact that one of the substances is legal and the other is illegal."

While Fuchs research on the project ended this summer, undergraduate student Karen Schmidt of Combined Locks will continue the research this fall, picking up where Fuchs left off.

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