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Under the microscope, over the moon

UND lands global audience when American Academy of Forensic Sciences produces documentary about University’s program

Lavinia Iancu and Julia Kochanowski
UND Forensic Science Director Lavinia Iancu (left) and Clinical & Translational Science graduate student Julia Kochanowski recently attended the American Academy of Forensic Science’s 76th annual conference in Denver, where a short documentary of UND’s bachelor’s degree program in Forensic Science was highlighted on the world stage. Photo by Janelle Vonasek/UND Today.

A short film’s recent world premiere may have featured a red carpet, celebrities and fancy flashing cameras, but the affair wasn’t like anything else you might imagine.

That’s because the carpet wasn’t for walking. The celebrities were more likely to wear lab coats than designer gowns. And the cameras were focused not on the stars, but instead on latent fingerprints and fibers of blood-soaked Berber.

It was in February at the American Academy of Forensic Science’s 76th annual conference in Denver where 4,000 guests — some of them the best-known forensic scientists, criminalists and investigators in the world — viewed a video that showcased UND’s experiential Forensic Science program.

It was all part of the global organization’s Thought Leadership Film Series, which was produced in partnership with the international film and broadcasting company WebsEdge of London.

“I was very surprised when they reached out to me because this is only the second year they’ve featured these documentary shorts, and I know it’s a very selective process,” said Lavinia Iancu, assistant professor and director of Forensic Science at UND. “I still don’t know who recommended our program, but I’m very happy and thrilled that they did. Only about a dozen universities or independent labs were chosen.”

Iancu, who is an AAFS fellow and 2024-25 section secretary for the organization’s Pathology/Biology division, said she first learned about UND’s possible inclusion in the film series in late November when she received a letter from WebsEdge requesting a preliminary interview.

“We’re interested in profiling your pioneering work in the field of forensic entomology,” the letter stated. “As many regions of the world continue to experience increasingly extreme weather patterns, there’s a critical need for a global database with strong scientific backing.

“Your ongoing research to understand the decomposition process over periods of extreme cold serves as a vital tool that could make the difference between a defendant’s conviction or exoneration.”

The letter went on to say that the purpose of the film series was to “raise the international visibility of those striving to advance forensic science and its application to the legal system with integrity and scientific rigor.”

forensic video in background
Lavinia Iancu and recent UND Forensic Science/Criminal Justice graduate Nicolette Ras take a selfie in front of just one of the big screens that played the UND documentary on a loop throughout the venue. “We saw that video so many times, I think we could recite the whole thing by the third day we were there,” Iancu said with a laugh. Both she and Ras also gave a conference presentation on how vertebrate scavengers can impact the microbiome of a deceased pig left uncaged in the cold outdoors. After taking more than 400 tissue samples over six months, Iancu was able to determine the pig’s time of death within 9.5 days. On the screen in the background is Lindsay Fugleberg, teaching assistant professor of Forensic Science. Photo courtesy of Lavinia Iancu.

Students step onto the world stage

Though Iancu says she’s camera-shy and personally not a fan of the limelight, the potential promotional coup for her students and UND was just too good to pass up. After all, she explained, the AAFS — with its 6,000-plus members from 72 countries — is the largest professional organization of its kind with experts in 12 specialty areas of forensic science and the law.

A captive audience of that caliber could prove to be a recruitment bonanza for students and faculty alike, Iancu thought. She agreed almost on the spot, and only a few weeks later, a small film crew arrived on campus.

Iancu was able to offer her initial direction for the film but said neither faculty nor students had a clue what the interview questions would be in advance.

“I told them I didn’t want the film to focus on only me and only my research,” she said. “My students are always my No. 1 priority, so I really wanted to shine more of the light on them. It was very important to me to show how our students are working hands-on — in the field and in the lab — learning to think critically and doing real research.”

That was Iancu’s ultimate goal, adding with a smile, “That way everyone out there will say, ‘Oh, we want all of your students because we know they are well-trained.’ For me, that would be mission accomplished.”

Guests at forensics conference
The women have their credentials and are ready to go. From left are Julia Kochanowski, Nicolette Ras and Lavinia Iancu, along with UND Forensic Science senior Anna Braun and their new friend from Germany, Maya Neumann. Photo courtesy of Lavinia Iancu.

Lights, cameras, crime … and action!

The documentary opens with a bird’s-eye view high above the treetops of Turtle River (N.D.) State Park as students below string yellow caution tape around the tree trunks to cordon off a mock crime scene. Then, as the ominous music builds, an off-camera Iancu can be heard in a voiceover:

“The world is full of injustice, so it’s important to have the young people who are coming after us, passionate, but also living in the reality of our days.”

The entire film lasts just a little more than six minutes, but it packs a powerful punch in promoting UND’s unique brand of experiential learning. Teaching assistant Lindsay Fugleberg, along with recent Forensic Science/Criminal Justice graduate Nicolette Ras, are both interviewed and featured prominently in the film.

And with a backdrop of students collecting, processing and examining evidence, Iancu stresses how teamwork is critical in the field of forensic science.

“It is not a one-man show,” she says at one point, adding that just as investigators do in real life, UND’s program incorporates expert knowledge in biology, chemistry, physics, math, criminal justice and the law.

“The multidisciplinary approach to training is key and essential for students at UND,” Iancu says. “We need to be sure we are bringing that piece of the puzzle that can be used by the criminal justice system. We have a huge number of graduate students, and we need to be sure that the laboratories across the United States benefit from our students’ experience.”

People at forensics conference
Julia Kochanowski (from left) and Nicolette Ras join Lavinia Iancu (far right) and her good friend, Dr. Dorothy Dean, who is a forensic pathologist and deputy coroner in the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office in Cincinnati. The women agree that professional networking is one of the most valuable takeaways from the weeklong conference. “What I bring back each time is a lot of enthusiasm,” Iancu added. “The work in this field sometimes can get quite heavy, and you feel that. But every time I go to the conference, I get a kick and new drive to carry on.” Photo courtesy of Lavinia Iancu.

Networking on a grand scale

Julia Kochanowski is just one of those graduate students. She’s earning her master’s degree in Clinical & Translational Science and hopes to one day work as a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist. This year was her fourth trip to the weeklong AAFS conference, which she described as a forensic scientist’s paradise.

“The first time I walked in, I didn’t know where to turn,” Kochanowski said. “It’s so humongous and can seem pretty overwhelming. There’s just so much to see and do. You’d feel lost without a plan and a map.”

Dozens of workshops and expert presentations are spread throughout the multilevel convention complex, she explained. Plus, there are three more large halls reserved for a university fair, a job fair and a vendor fair — the latter, where you can test out the latest and greatest in crime scene technology and equipment, including that spendy biological camera that can capture and store images directly into DNA.

Testing camera
Braun tests a Forensicscope.

“That’s the nice thing about forensics,” Kochanowski said. “It’s constantly developing, and there’s always something new and super cool.”

This year’s top pick for Kochanowski? That would be the scalpel with the built-in light on the handle. And for Iancu? A camera that can capture pictures of fingerprints without using powder as well as detect bodily fluids.

“Honestly, every year I have a difficult time deciding what to take in because there are so many different areas of forensics that interest me,” Kochanowski said. “But just being able to meet so many different experts in different areas … that networking is really invaluable. By learning about the paths others have taken, I’ve been able to get a lot of ideas for setting my own goals toward achieving what I want.”

And where else might a student get the chance to talk shop with the likes of Dr. Michael Baden, the board-certified forensic pathologist known not only for investigating a number of high-profile cases as the host of HBO’s “Autopsy” but also for leading the federal panel that investigated the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Likewise, where else would a UND professor who’s giving her own presentation casually look into the crowd and notice Dr. Jan Garavaglia listening intently in the front row? For those of you who don’t recognize the name, Garavaglia is the retired longtime Florida medical examiner and star of Discovery Health network’s popular show “Dr. G: Medical Examiner.”

Dr. Baden and Dr. G. are not at all bad company for UND’s newest documentary stars.

But what’s really important, AND ALWAYS MOST IMPORTANT, Iancu says, is setting a high bar for “good sound science.”

“This is how I see the role of faculty,” she said. “You cannot be a researcher without training others. We are all just like specks on this Earth, so we must leave something behind by teaching the next generation of scientists.”

>> You can learn more about Iancu’s groundbreaking research in an earlier UND Today story.

>> Nicolette Ras and Julia Kochanowski both have been featured in UND’s Leader in Action series. Read their stories at the links.

>> A video updated with some additional footage by UND Marketing & Creative Services can be found on UND’s YouTube page.

conference hall
Members of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences gather in one of the many meeting spaces at the conference in Denver. Photo courtesy of Lavinia Iancu.