Hands-on Experience with OSU's School of Forensic Sciences

Learning in the Field

OSU School of Forensic Sciences students get hands-on experience while aiding law enforcement.

Story by Sean Kennedy

Lindsey Yoder was quick to sign up when the OSU School of Forensic Sciences put out the call for volunteers to search for the remains of a missing 6-year-old girl.

“It was an opportunity to see what it was like to be involved in a real crime scene search and to put to work the skills I had been learning in the classroom,” says Yoder, a graduate student in forensic biology at the OSU Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa. “A case like this really pulls at your heartstrings, and it’s something you want to be involved in and help in any way you can.”

A Missing Girl

More Information

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has more details on Ashani's case.

Ashani Karin Creighton went missing in 1997 in Florida. Authorities believe she was killed in 1999 while living in Tulsa and buried in a then-vacant lot near 61st Street and Mingo Road.

In 2012, the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner’s Office and the Tulsa Police Department helped organize a search for Ashani’s remains based on a tip investigators received.

“Providing our students with opportunities for real-world experience is something we pride ourselves on at OSU,” says Robert Allen, chair of forensic sciences at OSU-CHS. “We asked our students to volunteer, and they seized the opportunity to help.”

Allen, forensic sciences assistant professor Ron Thrasher, 10 graduate students and 10 undergraduate students from Stillwater and Tulsa volunteered for the search. They sifted through soil, searching for Ashani’s remains during several days in March and again in May.

“We didn’t go into it thinking we would find anything. We were looking for a needle in a haystack,” Yoder says. “For the students, we went into it thinking about how we can give back to the community. It was also a chance to actually have some real-life experience in what we’ve been training to do.”

Despite hundreds of hours sifting dirt in sometimes-sweltering temperatures, volunteers and authorities found no evidence of Ashani’s remains. In December, Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett thanked volunteers at a special ceremony.

“The experience was eye-opening for some of our students who had never experienced being in the field before,” Allen says. “Even though they ended up with blisters on their hands and dealt with extremely warm temperatures, these students were out there because there was a purpose. There was something worthwhile in the search.”

Working with Experts

The search was not the first for the OSU School of Forensic Sciences. In 2011, law enforcement asked the school to help search for remains at Oklahoma’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska after ranchers discovered bones.

“The close relationship we have with the state medical examiner and the Tulsa Police Department as a result of both being located on our campus enables us to have interactions that otherwise wouldn’t be possible,” Allen says. “We are one of only two universities in the nation that house an active law enforcement crime lab on campus. That proximity is invaluable in making professional connections for our students.”

The forensic sciences program offers training for advanced careers in crime scene investigation, forensic chemistry and toxicology, forensic psychology and DNA analysis. The program takes about two years to complete.

“The students and faculty in the School of Forensic Sciences at OSU-CHS are energized by the program and the skills they develop while working with experts,” says Howard Barnett, president of OSU-Tulsa and OSU-CHS. “We are training the next generation of scientists, researchers and law enforcement professionals for high-tech careers investigating crimes and contributing to a safer communities across the nation.”

Thrasher, who teaches an advanced criminalistics course, brings in working professionals each week to lecture and help students process staged crime scenes. Students work with experts on topics ranging from blood spatter and firearms to environmental issues and death scene investigations.

“The course provides some wonderful interaction between our students and these experts,” Thrasher says. “Students get on their hands and knees, utilizing all of their senses, while they’re exploring a mock crime scene. It provides them a real edge when they go out and interview for jobs because they have this type of experience.”

The course culminates with a moot court experience that offers OSU forensic sciences students courtroom experience with graduating University of Tulsa College of Law students under the direction of Tulsa County District Court Judge Rebecca Nightingale.

The interaction with a wide range of law enforcement professionals attracts applicants such as Lindsey Allen, who also works as a research associate for an OSU-CHS associate professor.

“I really appreciate that all of the professors have experience in the field and can pass that along to the students,” she says. “Getting to have access to these experts is what has really drawn me to the program.”

Land-Grant Mission

As the demand for trained forensic professionals grows, the school is expanding partnerships and training opportunities. In June 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice brought a group of scientists from Sri Lanka to Tulsa for training on DNA forensics.

“No one in Sri Lanka had ever had that type of training before,” professor Robert Allen says. “OSU trained the first scientists in that nation to begin utilizing DNA technology. The program was so successful that we’re doing it again this summer.”

Allen says that projects happening at the school fit well with the overall land-grant mission of the university.

“The culture of OSU is alive and well here in the School of Forensic Sciences,” Allen says. “We have a graduate program that is thinking outside the box, is well-equipped with state-of-the-art technology and provides our students with the opportunities for research that other programs just cannot offer.”

For Yoder, that means lots of practical experience that she will utilize when she begins looking for a job.

“The OSU program really diversifies you as an employee and helps you get a foot in the door through our many partnerships and programs,” says Yoder, who plans to be a DNA analyst. “Being able to be out in the field will only help us in the long run.”

Slideshow Image: