The New Chemistry: Lander Launches Forensic Science Program
Tuesday, Jan 22, 2019
Jeff Hollifield and students
Lander Lecturer of Chemistry Jeff Hollifield, right, has been instrumental in establishing a new forensic science program at Lander. Photo by Laura Brown

A year ago, Lander expanded its Bachelor of Science in Chemistry by adding a forensic science emphasis. This semester, it began offering a forensic science minor as well.

The two programs are a response to the growing need for graduates trained to use scientific techniques to solve crimes.

“Forensics is something that’s increasingly important in the criminal justice system,” said Professor of Chemistry Dr. Ralph Layland, chair of Lander’s Department of Physical Sciences. “Forensics is the thing right now.”

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that jobs for forensic science technicians will grow by 17 percent through 2026, a rate of increase it calls “much faster than the average for all occupations.”

The growth in the industry can be seen in the proliferation of crime labs. In the past, forensics work in South Carolina was performed only in the State Crime Lab in Columbia. Now, there are a dozen or more counties in the state that have crime labs of their own.

Lander Lecturer of Chemistry Jeff Hollifield worked for the State Crime Lab for 10 years, then opened his own forensics laboratory, Micro Analytical, specializing in small particle analysis for law enforcement agencies, insurance adjusters, attorneys and industries.

Hollifield identified several additional places where forensic science technicians can find work.

“For instance, the D.E.A. has forensic scientists. The U.S. Customs Agency has a lab in Savannah that does customs analysis of things coming in and out of the country. The U.S. Postal Service has a forensics unit that analyzes spills.”

Sometimes, forensic scientists work in places where you wouldn't expect to find one. For example, museums employ forensic scientists to determine whether paintings in their collections are masterpieces or fakes.

“There are a lot of areas where forensic scientists can find jobs, not just in crime labs,” Hollifield said.

“They are, don’t forget, a true chemist,” added Layland. “So really, they could find any chemistry job, also. This specialization allows them to work in crime labs and different areas, but they’re still trained as a chemist. Forensics is almost the new chemistry, is what it is.”

Brian Murphy and Catherine Baker
Forensic science students Brian Murphy, of Bluffton, and Catherine Baker, of Whitmire, perform an experiment with a gaschromatography mass spectrometer, used in testing for drugs. Photo by Laura Brown

Students with other majors who minor in forensic science have some intriguing options, too. Visual arts students can find jobs producing witness account drawings or facial reconstructions from skeletons. Psychology students can find jobs in psychological profiling of criminals. Computer information systems graduates can assist with computer and cellphone investigations, and accounting majors can help with investigations for fraud and white-collar crime.

“You can do forensics in just about any subject area. Any area that’s going to come up as an issue in court can be developed into a forensics application. Forensics is the legal application of any subject; it doesn't have to be science,” Hollifield said.

Layland said he has had conversations with department heads in other subject areas, and “they see the benefits of having forensic science as a minor.”

The forensic science minor is expected to be an attractive option for chemistry, biology and environmental science majors, who already take four of the required seven courses and would only need to take Criminalistics, Microscopical Methods and Toxicology.

Hollifield described Criminalistics as a survey of different areas of forensics.

“We do a little bit with almost every department that would be in a crime lab – fingerprints, firearms and ballistics, arson, toxicology, serology, DNA, drugs, fibers, hair, explosive residues, handwriting – a little bit of everything.”

Microscopical Methods, he said, has a narrower focus.

“We’re going to look at hairs and fibers; we’re going to look at soil, rocks and minerals that would be in a soil sample; we’re going to look at explosive residues; and we’re going to look at paint pigments. Maybe glass, as well.”

Quantification of toxicity, biochemical action of toxicants and population effects of poisons are some of the topics covered in Toxicology, taught by Assistant Professor of Environmental Chemistry Dr. Diana Delach. Contaminants such as pesticides, industrial pollutants, metals and pharmaceuticals are discussed in conjunction with sources, sinks and efforts to create regulations.

Some chemistry majors at Lander are expected to switch to a forensic science emphasis, as many did at the University of West Virginia, where forensic science is now the most popular major on campus. Forensic science faculty were accused of “stealing” students, “but the chemistry majors actually increased also,” Hollifield said.

After years of analyzing drugs and trace evidence for the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), Hollifield returned to school and “took a lot of microscope courses to be able to analyze various types of evidence. Since then, I’ve taught and also done private forensics work, both in criminal and civil cases.”

Laura Maly and Erin McKee
Lander forensic science students Laura Maly, of Simpsonville, left, and Erin McKee, of Mauldin, work on a fracture match for glass, a technique used by forensic scientists to link glass found at a crime scene with glass found in a suspect’s house or car. Photo by Laura Brown

One of the new things in forensics, according to Hollifield, is the speed with which small samples of DNA can now be replicated so that they’re large enough to test.

“It used to take six months to do that; now they can do it in a few days or a week. Things like that are getting faster and faster and faster.”

Lander students had some interesting things to say about why they chose forensics.

“Watching way too many crime scene investigation shows – that, and Sherlock Holmes, are what sparked my interest in this field,” said Erin McKee, of Mauldin. “As for choosing the Lander program specifically, I’ve been around Greenwood throughout my life, so Lander was familiar. I have known Professor Hollifield for a while now, and knowing the work he did in crime labs made me feel confident in what I was being taught.”

Laura Maly, of Simpsonville, was influenced to go into forensic science by TV shows like “Bones” and “Dexter,” which feature characters in the forensic science field.

She chose Lander, she said, because it “was one of the only universities that had a forensics program and was affordable enough that I could attend.”

After graduation, Maly hopes to land an internship with a nearby police lab, “possibly leading into a full-time job as an assistant medical examiner or crime scene technician.”

McKee plans on pursuing a master’s in forensic science, and that might be a good idea. While employment opportunities for forensic science technicians are on the rise, it remains a relatively small occupation, and competition for jobs will be keen.     

When asked what they like about the field, forensic science majors Catherine Baker, of Whitmire, and Brian Murphy, of Bluffton, responded similarly.

“I love science, and I love analyzing and problem-solving. It kind of comes together perfectly in forensics,” Baker said.

“I think it’s a lot of fun to be able to solve problems, especially on the forensics end,” said Murphy. “To be able to investigate why something happened – or to be able to look at something that doesn't seem to have an answer, but still be able to pull something from that – I think is really cool.”

For more information, go to www.lander.edu/forensicscience.

 

This story is featured in the Fall 2018 edition of Lander Magazine. Read more at www.lander.edu/magazine.