Was it the knife, the candlestick or the rope?
UND Forensic Science students solve cases like real-life investigators, complete with DNA analysis, chain-of-custody forms and rubber cement
The police officer responding to the report of suspicious activity outside a Grand Forks storage unit didn’t know what to expect. It probably would be just another case of vandalized property.
The winter already had been too harsh and too long. And the calls about squatters and stray animals had clogged up dispatch lines far into spring.
But after arriving at the 12-by-12 storage unit and giving its half-open door a gentle push, the officer knew immediately she was looking at something far more serious. She saw signs of a possible struggle. Then, a blood trail and what appeared to be more blood spatter on the walls.
Even more ominous were the two heavy trash bags — the kind one usually uses to haul away fallen leaves — black, jumbo-sized and tied up tight.
This was not good. It was time to secure the perimeter and call in the crime scene investigators.
The scene described above, along with a call from a landlord missing a rent payment, led authorities next to a nearby apartment. It’s there where they found a man in his early to mid-20s — shoes sluffed off, wearing jeans and a T-shirt — sprawled out on the living room sofa. He was dead.
OK, let’s back up a second. This is the point where we tell you that none of this is real. The gruesome storage unit. The bags filled with bloody clues. The dead man. Again, not real.
But for the students in UND Forensic Science Director Lavinia Iancu’s laboratory, everything about the mock murder investigation is about as real as it gets.
Protocol and proper procedures had to be followed. The crime scene was sketched; the evidence logged, photographed, collected, sealed and tagged. Chain of custody forms were completed and signed. DNA was extracted and tested. Fingerprints and footprints — the latter, the stamp of a men’s size 11 Rockport loafer — were preserved and examined. All right here in the high-tech lab on the third floor of UND’s Ireland Hall.
“I’m just making everything really real,” Iancu says as she asks a guest to slip on protective shoe covers before entering the main laboratory, which is dominated by an oversized two-sided counter lined with long-legged stools and topped by 20 high-power microscopes.
“I think it’s important for students to experience what really happens at a crime scene, and I want to give them the opportunity to ask questions and do real investigative activities,” she says. “They need to know the truth. This work is not at all like ‘CSI.’ Those popular crime shows can be entertaining, but what happens in real life is not at all like what you see in the movies or on TV. You can’t expect to get DNA results like now. There’s so much more that goes on behind the scenes.”
And that “so much more” is exactly what the Romanian-born biologist and forensic entomologist is teaching her students through interactive instruction. In fact, Iancu says 90 percent of her classes involve hands-on work with state-of-the-art equipment, modern investigative techniques and sophisticated scientific analysis.
“I’m trying to speak less and have my students do more,” she says. “Of course, the theory part also is very important because we can’t just throw them in the lab and say ‘Hey, you have to do this.’ But they do examine real (albeit sometimes staged) evidence and learn from their mistakes.”
For example, students this spring suited up in head-to-toe hazmat gear before taking turns swinging at a (fake) blood-soaked sponge with a sledgehammer, claw hammer and screwdriver to study the varied cast-off patterns created by the potential weapons.
“That was a mess. I would say a horrible mess,” Iancu said with a laugh. “I think I will need to repaint that whole room before the next class, but it was all worth it.”
And her students agree.
Recent UND Forensic Science and German Studies graduate Taylor Roehl, who’s now applying to medical school, says one of her favorite UND experiences was senior year in a Iancu-designed capstone project. She and others were given adult flies and fly larvae to examine under the microscope. The goal? They needed to identify different species and their developmental stages in order to determine a hypothetical victim’s approximate time of death.
According to the case assignment, the body was found in a prairie region near Joliet, Ill., so students had to analyze the weather conditions there and a number of other factors before they wrote their technical reports and then testified about their conclusions before some very inquisitive UND law faculty in a mock case.
“Seeing the whole forensic science process firsthand from beginning to end is such a completely different world,” Roehl said. “Dr. Iancu certainly just could have explained the theoretical side in lectures, but we got to see how everything in a case actually comes together. She definitely made it feel like an authentic criminal investigation. It was so cool.”
They got the big picture. That’s the way Iancu does it. She also regularly reaches out to other professionals in multiple branches of forensics and criminal justice to invite them to speak to students about their areas of expertise.
And she’s persuasive. “So far, no one has refused me,” she said, stifling another laugh.
Guest speakers have included the state toxicologist and another lead forensic scientist with the Crime Laboratory Division for the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office.
Special Agent Derek Madsen of the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation even stood in a hail storm one morning outside Columbia Hall as he fielded nonstop questions from students. He had brought along the mobile crime unit that day to give students a tour of the tools of the trade.
“Rubber cement is probably best for picking up fingerprints,” he said.
“And we use these stickers for scales and bullet holes.”
“We always carry Narcan … I don’t know who invented it, but it does a fantastic job of saving people’s lives. Somehow, it blocks the opioid receptors in the brain, and they wake up swinging.”
Earlier, inside the building, Madsen explained how camera-equipped drones are used to cover large search areas quickly and how shoe polish can be slathered onto tires to roll tracks across a canvas of butcher-block paper.
Students also got a chance to look through the colored glasses investigators pair with electromagnetic spectrum light to detect evidence that otherwise might be invisible — things such as bruising, strands of hair, blood and saliva.
And they also heard from some of the biggest names in the field of forensics such as the world-renowned Barry A.J. Fisher. Now retired, the longtime director of the Crime Laboratory at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has published multiple books and frequently speaks on best practices as far away as Australia, Singapore, Japan and Dubai.
“I want to expose my students to as much science and as many techniques as I can,” Iancu explained. “That way, they can get a feel for everything and find their own way and their own passion.”
Not for everyone
Forensic Science may not be for everyone, but Iancu joked that it might be for most.
“Not everybody will go into this field. I mean, we have to be realistic,” she said. “But if we can have 90 percent of them, I think that will be fantastic.”
Graduates have so many different directions they can take their careers, and Iancu and Madsen said the jobs are out there — at the city, state and federal level.
The FBI website alone shows dozens of jobs in the areas of biometric analysis (DNA, latent prints), forensic response (hazards, crime scenes, photography, facial imaging), terrorist explosives, scientific analysis (firearms/toolmarks, cryptanalysis, trace evidence), and the list goes on.
“I tell my students it’s going to be hard but very rewarding. I’m not going to lie and say chemistry is a walk in the park, but everything you learn and accumulate in the program is going to help you in the future. The work is worth it,” Iancu said.
“And you don’t always know until you’re out there — in the field or in the lab — if you’ll be able to handle it. It sometimes can be very difficult juggling the emotional part, because when you’re going to the crime scene, you can be really mind-blown by what people can do to other people.
“But here, you are safe in the classroom environment. You can see a little bit what it’s like. If you find maybe you don’t have the patience for the lab and say, “Neh, DNA analysis is not for me.’ That’s OK, too. I can show you many other opportunities for you.”
Aiming for top accreditation
Immediately after Iancu joined UND late last summer, she began working to reorganize the 22-year-old program with the goal of achieving the highest accreditation from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The rating bestowed by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission — more widely known as simply FEPAC — is the crown jewel in forensic science.
“There are other good forensic science programs out there, but they don’t have FEPAC accreditation,” Iancu said. “UND would have the only FEPAC rating in the Upper Midwest.”
UND also would be one of only five FEPAC-rated institutions west of Chicago. So far, there are two in Texas, and one each in Oklahoma and Utah. The 27 others are predominantly located on the East Coast.
“I’m going for the FEPAC accreditation so we can offer more of a bonus for our students,” Iancu said. “For example, there are special scholarships, and some employers give more consideration to FEPAC graduates because they know they meet the higher curriculum and laboratory standards.”
FEPAC standards also align with requirements for FBI crime lab positions. UND’s new Forensic Science curriculum ensures that students complete a core number of science courses and then choose one of three specialty tracks: forensic biology, forensic chemistry or crime scene investigation.
So far, Iancu is the only full-time faculty member in the department, but she’s already collaborating with other College of Arts & Sciences faculty in Criminal Justice, Chemistry and Biology to fulfill some of the FEPAC requirements. And she has plans to boost the program by developing up to five new courses — Firearms and Toolmarks, Fingerprint Processing and Examination, Footwear and Tire Mark Evidence and Examination, Forensic Photography, as well as possibly Blood Pattern Analysis.
It may take three more years to reach that top accreditation status, but she’s off to a great start. And she says she hopes sooner than later, she’ll be able to make a case for adding faculty so she can double the capacity for both classes and laboratory work.
The growth trajectory
The Forensic Science bachelor’s degree has been offered by UND’s College of Arts & Sciences since 2000, and its popularity continues to grow. Enrollment trends over the past decade show an average of 94 students majoring in the program, and 101 students earned Forensic Science undergraduate degrees this spring.
Further, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates 16 percent job growth — a rate that’s much faster than average — through 2030. And that shows no sign of slowing down, considering the advancements in science technology. Iancu says even seasoned forensic scientists can expect continual training throughout their careers.
What UND can do now for future forensic experts is make them ready for almost anything.
“You can work in a lab. You can work in the field as a CSI, but sometimes you must do both. Either way, there is science all over,” Iancu said. “My main goal is to make sure they’re prepared. So when people are hiring, they will say, ‘Oh, they’re coming from UND. They are good. They are well-prepared.’”
STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK to read about Iancu’s groundbreaking research on cold-climate microbiomes. Her first-of-its-kind data set could help investigators determine post mortem intervals — or time of death — in extreme temperatures.