The Department of Forensic Science at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) is launching a new institute to train professionals to meet the rigors of forensic certification programs and to advance practical research opportunities between academia and crime labs.
The Institute for Forensic Research, Training and Innovation (IFRTI) will train professionals to meet current and future standards in forensic science disciplines and to build partnerships between academia and crime labs to address issues or trends in the field. In addition to forensic scientists, the programs will serve a wide variety of criminal justice professionals, including educators, scientists, law enforcement, attorneys and the judiciary.
Dr. David Gangitano works with student in lab under black light.“With forensic science reform pending in Congress, institutes of higher education are expected to play a major role in terms of research and training,” said Dr. Sarah Kerrigan, Chair of the Department of Forensic Science. “These improvements in the broad field of forensics present a unique opportunity to enhance our profile and national standing, while making a significant contribution to the advancement of efforts at the national level.”
The Department of Forensic Science, which is part of the College of Criminal Justice, is in a unique position to host this institute. It is one of a small number of accredited master’s programs in Forensic Science and soon will be the first to offer a multi-disciplinary Ph.D. in Forensic Science.
Dr. Sarah KerriganIn addition to the outstanding reputation of its program through its accreditation by the Forensic Science Educational Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), its diverse faculty offer a wide variety of expertise in the field. Dr. Kerrigan also serves on the national Forensic Science Standards Board, which is a new federal initiative to develop consensus standards for the forensic science disciplines throughout the United States. In the past, the College of Criminal Justice operated a regional crime lab, and it has collaborated with outside agencies on more than 28 projects and research initiatives at the state, local and national levels.
Other forensic research opportunities at Sam Houston State University include forensic anthropology, biological science, and chemistry studies at the College’s Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, one of six willed body donation centers in the world for the study of forensic anthropology. STAFS also offers hands-on training programs in practical aspects of crime scene investigations, such as forensic entomology, digital forensics, blood spatter, pattern evidence, and recovery of human remains. Those courses are open to law enforcement officers, who can earn credits from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, and educators, who can earn Continuing Education credits, for their participation.
Dr. Joan Bytheway teaches forensic anthropology at STAFS."In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report that found serious deficiencies in the nation’s forensic science system and called for major reforms and new research in the field. The NAS recommended rigorous and mandatory certification programs and strong standards and protocols for analyzing evidence. A bill, the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act, which would create national accreditation and certification standards and require forensic examiners to be certified to be eligible for direct or indirect federal funds, is currently pending in Congress.
The Texas Legislature introduced sweeping reforms to require accreditation of forensic labs 10 years ago, but certification rates remain extremely low among examiners. One of the biggest challenges in the forensic field is that most employees specialize in one discipline, but many certifications require a broad-based knowledge of the field.
“This knowledge gap can result in lower than expected success rates,” said Dr. Kerrigan. “Experienced and competent examiners might be tested on a body of information from another discipline that they rarely use, or were exposed to long ago during college education. The Department of Forensic Science has been developing a training program specifically to address this need.”
The Department is embracing the challenge to educate both current and future professionals in the field.
“Our diverse and experienced faculty are committed to teaching and research efforts not only in our graduate program and new undergraduate minor courses, but within the field,” said Dr. Kerrigan. “This new institute will not only create well-rounded professionals, but will open the door to collaborative efforts to improve practices and standards for current and future forensic scientists.”