The door has been kicked in, blood is smeared along the wall, and a knotted rope is still dangling from the bed. Students watch in anticipation as their classmates move through the house, taking notes, collecting evidence. What direction is the room facing? Where exactly is the discarded glass? What kind of knot was used to tie the rope?
Students of the Canberra Institute of Technology’s Bachelor of Applied Science in Forensic Investigation are in class. Lorelle Denham is their lecturer, a policewoman and crime scene examiner come out of covert operations in Victoria to “give something back” as a teacher.
Simon Gilmore is also a CIT forensics lecturer. He’s giving me a tour of the campus ‘crime scene house’. This morning an identical pseudo-crime has been committed in every room of the house. We get a bird’s eye view of each room from a raised walkway that runs down the hall. Simon is telling me how the class works: Students secure the scene, take some photographs, and then collect the evidence so as to minimize contamination. I’m feeling slightly sick in my stomach, but I can’t look away.
Kicked-in walls, cannabis DNA and yellow tape
This is an ordinary practical class for students in Semester Two’s Crime Scene Investigation unit. They move among the evidence, noting the difference between arterial spray, and blood leaked from a minor stab wound. They make fingerprints magically appear, and take DNA samples for later analysis. Next week, when they enter the house for a new class, the crime scene will have changed. Furniture will have moved, different evidence will litter the floor, a new pseudo-crime will have been committed. It’s terrific, says Simon. Even better, building students from other CIT courses get lots of practice repairing the kicked-in walls and broken windows.
Simon hasn’t always been a fan of forensic science. He was working at the Botanic Gardens as a plant molecular biologist, when police requested his help in matching the DNA from a cigar to a box. “I think that kind of sparked an interest,” he says with nonchalance. Today Simon is completing his PhD, developing DNA markers for cannabis plants. “The idea is that you can link plants to crops,” he explains. “Say if you caught someone with a boot full of pot that might be associated with a crop, you could use (DNA) markers to make a link between the two.”
When he’s not fingerprinting narcotics, Simon is lecturing students in the techniques of forensic biology. “This is a science degree,” he says. “It’s not just running around, sticking up yellow tape and collecting evidence. It’s not like television at all.”
Practical training: Footwear, bloodstains and the body farm
A quick look at the timetable is enough to set that record straight. The course includes solid chunks of complex maths, physics, biology and statistics. But read on, and you’ll also find on offer Footwear and Tyremark Evidence, Bloodstain Pattern Investigation, and Courtroom Presentation of Evidence (or as one student puts it, “how not to freak out when you’re in a court room being cross-examined”). As well as gathering evidence from the ‘crime scene house’, students gain practical training in recovering remains from shallow graves, and identifying the stages of decomposition in the delightfully dubbed ‘body farm.’
This kind of practical training is exactly what first year Stephanie Wallis signed up for. “I didn’t want to sit in a lab every day, doing the same thing over and over,” she says. “A crime scene is always different; you’ll be doing different things every day.” Stephanie entered the degree directly from college, and though she agrees there is a fair chunk of theory, she’s delighted with the hands on approach. “If you’re looking for the practical side of forensics, this is the course to do.”
Renee Wilson started in forensic science after completing a degree in archaeology and anthropology. She’s tipped to be top of the class when it comes to practical classes at the campus ‘grave site’. “Archaeology was a lot of bagging bits of soil and charcoal,” she laughs. “A crime scene is the same thing really…it’s all dead. In archaeology it’s just not as fresh.”
A laugh goes round the table, and I’m left feeling a little on the outside. Is it true that you begin to laugh at strange things when you’re always dealing with horror and crime? There is group consensus: Absolutely. “You get very excited about dead bodies, and things that most people don’t get excited by,” explains Renee. “We’re all like, ‘wow, maggots’.”
Classmate Fiona Knott agrees: “You don’t get used to it [horror and crime], you just learn how to cope. I’ll be talking about stuff over dinner, and not realize that I’m putting people off.” Fiona came to forensics after studying psychology, and she’s planning to combine the two to get into criminal profiling. “Psychology was OK, but I wanted something hands-on, something out there,” she says. “Here you really know why you’re learning a subject, and how it’s being used. Yesterday we learnt that you have to change your gloves after every single piece of evidence. In a two and a bit hour prac, I went through almost 20 pairs of gloves.”
“How will we cope?”
But beyond the group’s enthusiasm and excitement, there lies a little uncertainty. How will they react when the classroom ‘crime house’ becomes the real thing?
“How am I going to cope when it has really happened, and there has actually been an assault or whatever?” asks Fiona. “You can see an animal that’s dead, but when it’s a human, and you can see a face… I guess that’s why we do the units we do. We study conflict and negotiation skills that will help us when it comes to dealing with things like that.”
This year will see the third lot of Forensic Investigation students graduate from the degree program. So far, nearly 100% of students have walked into a job.
Simon says that forensic science is well and truly on the move: “We’re going through a growth phase in forensic science personnel in Australia, but it’s going to plateau,” he says. “Ten years ago, there was no real forensic science education as such. We used to be the only course in Australia, and now there’s about 16 different forensic science courses.”
“Students do get to lead a pretty exciting life,” says Simon, and he laughs. “And as soon as they walk out of here, into their first job, they earn quite a bit more than their teachers.”
With basic first year salaries starting at $50,000 plus overtime, there’s little wonder that forensics is the ‘sexy’ science. But the job isn’t all glory: “You’re on call, and you can get called out in the middle of the night to what can be a pretty horrific sort of scene,” says Simon. “You have to be mature, self confident, and empathetic; you’re dealing with people who can be pretty upset. We’ve had a couple of (ex)students in difficult situations where they’ve had to think fast to get out of potential trouble.”
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