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TV Crime Shows Make Forensic Studies a Hot Career


Across America, heightened concerns about terrorist threats have spawned lots of new jobs in the fields of security and law enforcement. And there's a related career path that's even hotter.

The field is forensic science -- or scientific investigation involving analysis of materials at crime scenes, as well as knowledge of the psychology of criminal behavior. College programs are full, with long lines of hopeful applicants. Homeland-security demands, and also a wave of popular television and cable programs about science and the law, are prompting students to seek careers as what are called criminalists.

The CBS television show CSI is America's most-watched program. In the opening credits, viewers hear a woman hauntingly chanting in the background, then the characters say, "My only real purpose is to find the evidence and make sense of it all, a fingerprint, a fiber, a hair. . ."

CSI stands for crime scene investigation. On Cold Case Files, a cable network show, scientific investigators solve old crimes. And the Internet site for the Court TV cable show Forensic Files includes a virtual lab, complete with experts.

Ron Singer runs the crime laboratory for the county that includes Fort Worth, Texas. He says he's inundated with questions about the nature of his work. He calls it the "CSI effect."

"What they see [on TV] is the police officer who goes to a crime scene," Mr. Singer says. "He interviews witnesses, collects evidence, then he brings it back to a crime laboratory, where he actually runs the analyses. When they find out, well, that's not exactly the way it works in real life, and in order to do that last part - run the analyses -- and to actually get that result and to come up with the opinion, you've got to be a SCIENTIST, there are a number of students that begin to back away."

However, Ron Singer adds that the TV programs show that classroom studies in forensic science can lead to interesting real-world jobs.

At Marymount University's forensic-sciences program in Virginia, graduate student Mary Prince has her eye on a career as a forensic psychologist. Herself a victim of a violent attack, Ms. Prince recently completed an internship with the Metropolitan Police Department, or MPD, in Washington, investigating old, unsolved crimes.

"On the TV programs right now, all the evidence is there," Ms. Prince says. "It's very easy. They have a suspect right away. It goes through trial, and they're convicted. What I've experienced with the MPD is that it can take months. In a lot of cases that I've seen, witnesses aren't willing to cooperate with the police. The evidence isn't there. And it takes a long time to get back DNA and fingerprints. They're not as open-and-shut cases as they are on TV."

Across the Potomac River at George Washington University's forensic-sciences department -- the nation's oldest existing program -- faculty and students have worked on actual criminal cases since 1968, when members of the FBI's real-life crime lab made up its first class of students. Professor Walter Rowe, a trained chemist who is often called as an expert trial witness, says the word forensic comes from Latin, and means public. He adds that as such, it's also used to describe public debate. "Rather amusingly," Mr. Rowe says, "we have a forensics program here at G.W.: the debate team. We get all their mail!"

His kind of forensics involves lab work that becomes evidence in criminal or civil trials.

"Forensic science has been around for a long time," Professor Rowe says. "You can trace it back to about the 11th or 12th century in China. There are some Chinese medical texts that describe how to test a stain on a knife blade, to see if it's actually blood or not. In the 1880s, the Sherlock Holmes [detective] stories emerged. These TV shows like CSI, they're sort of the equivalent of the Sherlock Holmes stories."

George Washington University forensics graduate student Tahnee Nelson works with equipment like a rotating water bath that keeps blood samples at a constant temperature. She says, "A lot of students say to me, 'Oh, I want to do this, and how do I get there?' It's a long road of lots of labs and lots of studying. You can't just walk into it."

Ms. Nelson is studying the microscopic building blocks of life called DNA. She wants to see whether DNA from relatives as distant as aunts and uncles can be used to identify victims and suspects.

Television genres rise and fade in popularity. Westerns, comedies, and reality shows have all had their heyday. Now, as Tahnee Nelson puts it, forensic-science shows are the fad, but adds: "The science is always going to be around, and they're always going to have a need for it. The more we discover, the more interest there's going to be."

And there will continue to be movies, crime novels, and newspaper accounts of cases solved by crack detectives with the help of men and women in white lab coats who work behind the scenes.

NOTE TO SUSAN AND PAULIE: Although there's a scientific element to this story, it's more about a cultural trend (TV creating interest in a career). I'd put this on the American Life page.

PHOTOS: Several on my photo site. I sent Susan notes with IDs.

LINKS: The website of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, <http://www.aafs.org>, includes a Young Forensic Scientists Forum. On that site, also look under Resources for the section, Choosing a Career.

George Washington University's forensic sciences site, <http://www.gwu.edu/~forensic/listofli.htm>, includes many weblinks on subjects like DNA and crime-scene investigation.

This site, <http://www.marymount.edu/academic/sehs/soc/>, explains Marymount University's criminal-justice program that includes the study of forensic science.

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