Getting Hands-On Experience at the Houston Forensic Science Center

Intern Samantha Martinez looks for fingerprints on a temporary license plate.
Intern Samantha Martinez looks for fingerprints on a temporary license plate.

At the Houston Forensic Science Center, Intern Samantha Martinez worked under the direct supervision and guidance from Certified Latent Print Examiner Brian O’Hare on the FBI’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), leading to “hits,” helping police get one step closer to solving crimes.

“I got to enhance fingerprints using Photoshop,” said Martinez, a senior and criminal justice major at Sam Houston State University. “My supervisor said a lot of the fingerprints were getting hits. We found a lot of fingerprints. I hoped they would have a match.”

One day, the Houston Forensic Science Center, which provides forensic sciences to the Houston Police Department, handled three cases, in which seven fingerprints were lifted from 14 objects taken from the scenes. Martinez observed and assisted with processing prints by applying the chemicals needed to illuminate the prints in the laser room. She watched the different processes used for porous, non-porous and semi-porous samples.

Martinez in the lab.
Martinez in the lab.
During her three-month summer internship in the lab, Martinez got to witness the forensic investigation of a wide variety of cases, including homicides, aggravated robberies, aggravated sexual assaults, narcotics, unlawful carrying of weapons and criminal mischief. She had a “sponge-like thirst” for forensic knowledge, said her supervisor, Lt. Barry McDermott, Acting Training Director at the center.

“The internship is a mutually beneficial program to SHSU students and the Houston Forensic Science Center,” said McDermott. “The student is exposed to the duties and responsibilities of forensic practitioners in one or more forensic disciplines…The hands-on experience afforded the student will no doubt influence their future decisions with respect to solidifying a career in forensics and the discipline of choice. The Houston Forensic Science Center benefits from the assistance the interns provide in assisting our staff in accomplishing the daily functions in an effective and efficient manner.”

Martinez in the laser room.
Martinez in the laser room.
Martinez also got to see the wide array of equipment used by professionals in the field. For example, the fingerprint lab has two laser processing areas – one for small objects, like a bottle, and the other for large items, like a bicycle.

Martinez has always been fascinated with the work of a crime lab, but wanted to get hands-on experience to better identify a specialty she would like to pursue for her career. The internship at the Houston Forensic Science Center was just the ticket. She got to see in action labs that process DNA/Biology, firearms, controlled substances, toxicology, crime scene, audio-video, and digital forensic evidence.

“I got a feel for the different kinds of labs to see what they do.” said Martinez. “I really like the DNA and biology labs, and I really didn’t think I would.”

Woman in lab looking at microscope sample on computer screen.In the biology lab, she watched analysts conduct confirmatory tests on blood, semen and oral swabs, usually in aggravated sexual assault cases. In the toxicology lab, analysts identified drug and alcohol levels in suspects by testing blood samples using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry machines.

“It was very familiar,” said Martinez, a former chemistry major. “I used many of the same tests in my classes.”
In the controlled substances lab, Martinez examined cocaine and marijuana samples under the microscope.

“It has given me a lot of knowledge about the Houston Forensic Science Center,” Martinez said. “I got my foot in the door. It gave me the understanding about how evidence comes in the doors and how it is perceived from a lab analyst point of view, not the public point of view.”
Martinez said a class she took last semester, Crime Scene Investigations, helped get her ready for the internship.

Man works among testing equipment in a lab.That class reviewed every aspect of the crime lab, which she saw firsthand at the Houston Forensic Science Center.
The internship gave her more direction for her future career, which will include additional science classes and graduate level work. She plans to pursue a job at the center and continue her education.

“I went into criminal justice because I wanted to do more in the criminology field,” said Martinez. “Now I need to go back for more science.”
McDermott, too, was invested in the internship.

“We have a stake in encouraging and guiding their career aspirations, as they will someday be our colleagues and/or 'practitioners' of the future,” he said.

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