In Associate Professor of Chemistry Christine de Denus’ forensic science course, lab experiments and guest lectures offer students rare windows into the techniques used by criminal investigators — and the gap between their media depictions and reality. Beginning with the history of the field, students explore how investigators process crime scenes and the importance of evidence handling, before moving on to case studies that reveal the scientific methods of analyzing evidence.
“Forensics is unique because it really involves teamwork of the legal system and the science world and sometimes you can see those differences despite efforts to limit them,” says Mary Mazzarella ’22, a biology major who wanted “to understand the science behind evidence. I had been familiar with ‘CSI’ and other crime shows but I felt it was important to understand crime investigations from an academic standing…I think it’s necessary for both [the law and science] to understand the other in order to create a unified case.”
In the past, de Denus has brought forensic experts to campus as guest speakers, as well as a K-9 dog and the dog’s handler to demonstrate how a search for accelerants works. “I have also set up a crime scene on campus and had the students process the scene, collect and analyze evidence, and create their own forensic files video to explain what happened,” she says.
During Maymester 2020, she adapted the course’s framework to a virtual model to account for different time zones, internet connections, study spaces and other challenges posed by COVID-19 restrictions. To supplement the virtual class sessions as the course progressed, de Denus met individually with each student weekly, with additional office hours, and assigned mini-presentations each day on a forensic scientist or a relevant news topic.
The changes allowed the class to have more breadth than usual, she says. “It has been a lot of dedication and hard-work, but it has been extremely rewarding.”
Additionally, in video lectures, guest speakers like Associate Vice President for HWS Campus Safety Marty Corbett, a former captain and operations division manager for the Irondequoit Police Department; Associate Professor of Sociology Jim Sutton, an expert in criminology; and Malory Saki ’09, a forensic scientist with the New York State Police, shared their experience and insights on the connections between the science and the legal system.
Saki — whose First Year Seminar at HWS, “Chemistry and Crime,” was taught by de Denus — earned her master’s in forensic science from Chaminade University of Honolulu. She then joined the state police’s Forensic Investigation Center in Albany, N.Y., as a lab technician, before moving to the Drug Chemistry section of the Mid-Hudson Satellite Crime Laboratory in New Windsor, where she was promoted to a forensic scientist.
In her virtual talk with the Maymester class, Saki explained “the disciplines that exist within the world of forensics and how it is not at all like it is shown on TV on ‘CSI.’” She discussed the state’s crime lab system and fielded student questions on everything from instrumentation to the effect of the pandemic on the number of cases coming into the lab.
Beyond the guest lecturers, Nicole Miller ’22 says de Denus’ “use of real-life case studies, such as the Tylenol Tampering Case and the JFK Assassination, helped maintain my interest while providing an opportunity to understand how scientific inquiry plays a fundamental role in the criminal justice system. The class mix of chemistry and non-science majors provided a unique atmosphere that enriched class discussions. It was exciting being able to listen to the diverse thoughts brought forth and how they varied based on our different backgrounds as a class.”
By the end of the course, Miller says she “gained an immense amount of knowledge of the forensic science field. Professor de Denus structured the course in a way that everything we discussed, listened to and read had purpose in the context of forensic science which made the course very enjoyable.”