Dr. Stephania Messersmith

Dr. Stephania Messersmith with an atomic absorption spectrometer, an instrument used by forensic scientists to analyze samples for gunshot residues or revealing soil or toxicological matter.

‘CSI’ course part of effort to whet student interest in science

To help science come alive for students, BGSU has turned to the dead.

Considering the popularity of the “CSI” television shows, the response hasn’t disappointed.

Chemistry 177, Introduction to Forensic Science, filled to the maximum 30 students virtually overnight when it was widely announced on the eve of spring semester last January. It’s full again this fall, and so is a 25-student section of the class being taught for the first time to freshmen in the BGeXperience program.

The forensic science course is aimed at nonscience majors, as is a course on “Life in Extreme Environments,” which is being developed now for a planned debut next spring.

Both courses are part of an effort by the College of Arts and Sciences “to explore new and exciting curriculum offerings in the sciences,” notes Dr. Roger Thibault, the college’s executive associate dean for resources, planning, facilities and personnel.

“We have made it a high priority to enhance our nonmajors science courses that satisfy BG Perspective (general education) science credit with contemporary offerings that are attractive to students,” according to Thibault. “We also hope that such offerings will encourage many students to consider majoring in science as well.”

Dr. Stephania Messersmith, a visiting assistant professor of chemistry, was hired a year ago to create and teach Chemistry 177, in which students learn the nature of scientific evidence, how it’s obtained and used in the scientific process, and how to solve problems using the scientific approach.

An analytical chemist, Messersmith points out that forensic science incorporates her specialty, along with many others in the sciences. Criminalistics, which she calls the primary textbook among the relatively few available in the field, was written by an analytical chemist, Richard Saferstein, she adds.

Mathematical and scientific concepts are kept on a fundamental level in her class, Messersmith says, but “we talk about a lot of the different facets” of forensic science, including basics of chemistry and analytical methods, DNA analysis, fingerprints, toxicological studies, document examination/authentication, and hair and fiber analysis.

“On ‘CSI,’ they say, ‘Run it through the GC (Gas Chromatography) Mass Spectrometer,’” so the students talk about what that is and do some in-class projects analyzing data from it, she says.

And is the stable of “CSI” shows to thank for the level of student interest? “I think that’s a major reason why, but also the fact that forensic science has come a long way,” Messersmith notes, elaborating that technology now affords the ability to perform complex analyses and provide considerable information.

Actual forensic science isn’t as glamorous as the TV version, she continues, saying it’s “a little disappointing” to see a portrayal of one person doing everything from gathering evidence to trying the eventual case. Also, “in the shows, you have unlimited funding to pursue every case,” she adds, citing that as another of the “media misconceptions” about the field.

But “CSI” producers get a number of scientific details right, too, including appropriate use of instruments, says Messersmith, who earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Toledo. They know they have to be more accurate, she believes, because of the increasing number of viewers interested in forensic science.

The BGeXperience section of the course incorporates discussion of values issues such as not discarding data if it’s not scientifically sound to do so and not having preconceived notions based on someone’s presumed guilt or innocence, she explains.

Questions about the chain of custody of evidence are also among those addressed. As Messersmith points out, forensic scientists “have to constantly know who has the evidence,” and that it’s not been tampered with.

“The challenge in a 100-level course really is presenting that (information) at a level where students can understand it with their background, and not oversimplifying things to the point where they’re not true,” she says, adding that a companion course is also planned for science majors.

Another visiting assistant professor, Dr. Erin McMullin, a marine biologist from the University of Delaware, is currently developing the “Life in Extreme Environments” course for the college while also teaching “Life in the Sea.”

September 18, 2006