Skip to main content

NC State News

CSI: NC State

NC State anthropology professor Ann Ross (left) and entomology professor Wes Watson (right) are two of the experts leading the university's growing forensic sciences program.

Editor’s note: This story, from NC State magazine, details how faculty from across campus are working with law enforcement to transform the way we solve crimes. NC State magazine is a benefit of membership in the N.C. State Alumni Association. For information on how to join, visit www.alumni.ncsu.edu.

The bones from a dismembered body found in Texas are awaiting inspection in a lab near the 1911 Building. On Centennial Campus, a computer screen blips as it records information from extracted dye as researchers build a database to help crime scene investigators compare automobile fibers. In the basement of Brooks Hall, video game technology is put to a different use as a 3-D version of a crime scene appears on a screen. And just off Western Boulevard, an entomologist awaits a call from a prosecutor to testify in the case of a suspected serial killer.

If it sounds like CSI: NC State, there’s good reason for that. All across campus, researchers from different disciplines have teamed up to develop a forensics institute that is providing crucial help to law enforcement investigators. The institute will also establish a framework for students to delve into forensics, the application of scientific knowledge to physical evidence. The effort involves nearly every college on campus, from textiles to humanities to design to engineering, and researchers have garnered nearly $3 million in grants along the way.

“The university right now is poised to become a national, even global, leader in this area,” says Billy Oliver, an archeologist and teaching associate who helped set up the NC State Forensic Sciences Institute, which brings together researchers around campus, establishes courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels, and provides training and help to law enforcement officers.

The expertise being put to use is wide-ranging. Textiles researchers are establishing a database to help investigators definitively link automobile fibers to crime scenes or suspects. NC State insect experts can pinpoint the time of death of a decomposing body by examining maggots, and soil scientists have linked suspects to a crime scene based on mica chips. Anthropology Professor Ann Ross has developed a computer software program using skull measurements to help identify the ethnic ancestry of a victim—an important tool in missing persons cases. At the College of Veterinary Medicine, two researchers are looking into identifying bacterial signatures left on fingerprints.

A textiles student does forensic work in a lab, checking on how fabric breaks down over time and in different situations.

For students, the institute will mean more course offerings. With four undergraduate and two graduate courses in forensics, students can now minor in forensic sciences, but plans are underway to add a bachelor of science and a master’s program. The institute isn’t the only such program in the nation—prestigious ones exist at Penn State and UC-Davis, for instance—but leaders of NC State’s institute plan to work toward establishing the first doctoral program in forensic science in the nation. NC State’s forensics experts may reach out to other institutions as well, says David Hinks, Cone Mills Professor of textile chemistry and co-director of the institute. Hinks points out that a lot of law schools don’t offer students much in the way of looking at scientific evaluation of evidence. “There are so many directions we can go and are going. It’s very exciting,” Hinks says.

The Forensic Sciences Institute was given the green light by the chancellor in December 2010 and awaits formal approval from the UNC Board of Trustees, which is likely within the next year. About 1,400 square feet in the College of Textiles building on Centennial Campus have been set aside for offices, meeting space and equipment such as a bone density scanner that can help determine if a child was malnourished and the victim of parental abuse.

There’s even a cordoned-off crime scene used to train students to document evidence. Bloody footprints are beside an overturned office chair. An open newspaper is on the desk, a FedEx packing slip is on the floor and blood is spattered on a wall. Oliver says that noting everything in the room is important — the date on the newspaper may give a clue as to the date of the offense, the footprints will tell what type of shoe the suspect wore ,and the pattern of blood can help investigators reenact the struggle.

A special office provides a place where evidence from real-world crimes can be kept under lock and key. NC State faculty have been involved in helping to investigate more than 100 homicide and missing persons cases, most in North Carolina but some in other states as well. “Almost every major case you’ve read about in the news we’ve had some involvement with,” Oliver says.

Law enforcement officers learn forensics during a "CSI" seminar on campus.

The institute has its roots in a program formed by an agreement between the university and the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources’ state archeologist’s office. Under the agreement, which expired in 2010, NC State experts teamed up with law enforcement to provide training programs and seminars as well as offer help in the scientific examination of evidence.

One of the most popular seminars is “Discovery and Recovery,” where students study decomposing pig carcasses and learn how to document and map a crime scene, excavate a burial site, and locate, identify and store trace evidence including hair, fibers, and insects. They also learn how to engage and locate specialized experts.

One of those specialized experts is Ross, an anthropology professor who studies the clues that bones leave behind. Ross is often called in to help identify remains, and she is also frequently involved in child abuse cases. Last year, she published The Juvenile Skeleton in Forensic Abuse Investigations, a book in which she details ways to detect the difference between accidental and non-accidental trauma. Ross was also called in on the case of Zahra Baker, the disabled 10-year-old who was murdered in Hickory, N.C., in 2010, to determine whether a hand saw or a machine saw was used to dismember the girl’s body.

Another expert frequently called on is Wes Watson, a veterinary entomologist whose knowledge of the life cycle of the blow fly — usually the first fly to land on a dead body — helps determine the time of death. He is also involved in research looking at the life cycle of insects on a body that has already been buried and how that may help determine time of death.

In 2011, he testified in the case of Brad Cooper, a Cary, N.C., man convicted of murdering his wife, and more recently in the case of a suspected serial killer in Rocky Mount, N.C. “It’s nerve-wracking,” he says of testifying in court. “You don’t want to make any errors. You don’t want to get emotional, and you want to stick to the science.”

Anthropology professor Ann Ross is one of several faculty experts driving forensic sciences at NC State.

Deborah Radisch, North Carolina’s chief medical examiner, says having Ross and other experts nearby is invaluable. Her office sends new employees to annual training sessions held on campus to understand how to apply entomology to the cases they investigate. And her office often calls on Ross for help. “It’s mutually beneficial,” she says. “There are several cases a year where the questions that are raised are greater than what we’re capable of doing. It would be beyond our expertise.”

For his part, Hinks got involved when he and some colleagues were looking to improve enrollment numbers in the then-named bachelor’s in textile chemistry due to the demise of the textile manufacturing industry in North Carolina. Hinks learned that enrollment had been increasing in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. “Someone said, ‘It’s the CSI effect,’” Hinks says, with students finding chemistry more attractive because they see it being used in different ways on TV. As Hinks and his colleagues began looking for ways to revamp the new bachelor’s degree in polymer and color chemistry, they remembered that one former student had gone on to work with hair and fiber evidence at the FBI.

Then Hinks had a “eureka” moment that would lead to a major research project. Giving a visitor a tour of the Burlington Textiles Library, he passed through the area housing the books on apparel and design, an area not part of his discipline. That’s when he saw it: a set of huge books, each with “The Detroit Book” on its cover, containing fabric samples from automobiles dating back to 1955.

When the librarian showed him the collection, “I knew what we were going to do,” Hinks says. “I thought it was a gold mine.” Today, Hinks and his team are using dyed fiber samples to develop a database showing the molecular structure of the dye used in the fiber of each model car. This will mean that when investigators are looking at fibers from an automobile, they could be able to definitively say which model of car it came from rather than just comparing the color and type of fiber. Coming across the books in the library, Hinks says, was “a classic example of serendipity in science and the value of having an interdisciplinary college like the College of Textiles.”

In some research areas, experts from different colleges are teaming up. Michael Young in the College of Engineering and Tim Buie in the College of Design are collaborating to develop 3-D computerized crime scenes complete with avatars that allow investigators to reenact a crime. Buie says Hinks and Oliver approached him and said, “How would you like to get involved in something that involves blood spatter, crime scenes and forensic work?” Buie says he replied, “You had me at blood spatter.”

Ross says she loves getting the opportunity to work with scientists in other disciplines. “The most exciting part is that this is a truly multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary group and we work so well together,” Ross says. “We’re crossing so many departmental — not just departmental, but college — boundaries.”

The need for more research universities like NC State to be involved in forensic science was underscored in a 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences, “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward.” The report noted, “Many forensic degree programs are found at small colleges or universities with few graduate programs in science … . The lack of research funding has discouraged universities in the United States from developing research-based forensic degrees.”

NC State’s efforts to pull together resources, obtain grants and use research scientists to change the way evidence is studied is a good sign that that may be changing, said Michael Risinger, professor of law at Seton Hall University and a co-author of a UCLA Law Review article titled “The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences.” The subject hasn’t always been given adequate attention in the academic setting, he says. “It sounds like you have a hand pushing on the rudder there at NC State,” he says, “and that’s a good thing.”

Leave a Response

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *