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To create a master’s in forensic science, Emporia State educator looks to Johnson County

Melissa Bailey (right) and forensic scientist Julinne Kemp examine a control sample analyzed by a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer at the Criminalistics Laboratory of the Johnson County Sheriff's Office.
Melissa Bailey (right) and forensic scientist Julinne Kemp examine a control sample analyzed by a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer at the Criminalistics Laboratory of the Johnson County Sheriff's Office. Special to The Star

Emporia State University is starting the state’s only master’s degree program in forensic science — and its director is looking to Johnson County for some extra experience this summer.

Melissa Bailey, an associate professor of biological sciences, worked as a forensic scientist in the field of toxicology for the Alabama Department of Forensic Science before returning to school for a doctorate. She got the idea to start a master’s program at Emporia State three years ago.

Bailey looked at programs at schools such as the City University of New York and the University of Alabama at Birmingham for inspiration. She also sought input from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory, Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the Kansas City Police Department and Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center.

“All of the directors (of these agencies) have an interest in recruiting and retaining people with Kansas ties” to work in their labs, Bailey said.

Gary Howell, director of Johnson County’s crime lab, offered to let Bailey intern with them for the summer so she could get up to date with techniques and methods that might have changed since her time working in Alabama.

“One thing I really wanted was to make the program relevant for the people and programs that want to hire” people with these skills, Bailey said. “Gary Howell offered me the chance to spend the whole summer shadowing each department. As a forensic scientist, I am (most) familiar with toxicology.

“I’m interested in marrying current practice with theory,” Bailey said.

She was very impressed with the Johnson County crime lab. After shadowing workers in Johnson County for several weeks, “there have been pieces of equipment I wish I’d asked for (in the ESU lab), like a comparison microscope for ballistics,” Bailey said.

Initially, Bailey just wanted to teach a course in forensic science for non-majors.

“We never had time to teach it,” she said.

The chair of her department asked if she’d take the idea a few steps further and develop a whole degree. Several Kansas universities, such as Washburn, have undergraduate programs in forensic science, but none have master’s programs.

The university, which has invested $300,000 in building renovations, equipment and staff for the program, will see its first class of 17 students enter the program in August.

Even a pre-med degree alone might not be enough to qualify for the master’s degree program, which has pre-requisites for standard biology and chemistry classes in addition to specific classes such as population frequency statistics.

On the degree’s curriculum are courses in biological and physical evidence and molecular techniques in handling DNA. The whole program is 40 credit hours, spread over two years.

“We spend a lot of time on the methodology. There’s a lot of verification and certification that we’re doing the science right,” Howell said. “DNA has changed how we do forensic science.”

Knowing methodology is important at crime scenes for forensic scientists.

“You can’t go to a crime scene and take a fingerprint brush from one scene to another,” Howell said.

Investigators might have to examine evidence in a car, a jail, on a person — all for the same case. The reuse of a brush could, for example, accidentally transfer DNA from one place to another.

And the real tests take a lot more time to complete than they do on television crime dramas. The current equipment is very good at detecting things within samples — as long as a person knows how to use it correctly.

Too large a sample in a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer could blow out the machine’s workings instead of finding the level of a particular drug in someone’s system at a certain point in time.

The level of expertise required to process evidence correctly and operate the lab equipment properly is partly why the master’s program is so intense.

Bailey said that in five years, she hopes ESU’s program can vie for a coveted Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission certification. Only 22 master’s programs currently have the certification.