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CBS alumni.

CBS alumni who are now forensic scientists at the St. Paul Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). From front to back are Myha Le, Amy Tierney, Staci Bennett, Jim Liberty, Drake Holter. Not pictured are Jay Wenner and Delores Schoenbauer.

To their left is the "Exquisite Corpse," stained glass art created for the Bureau's new building. It represents cross sections of the corpse of a convicted felon, considered to be anatomically perfect. He donated his body for forensics research and education.

CSI Minnesota: CBS alumni at the scene of the crime

CBS alumni at the scene of the crime

By Rick Moore

Pubished on October 7, 2004

Week in and week out, sometimes up to four times a week, TV viewers are entertained--if not dazzled--by the science-citing sleuths of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and its several spinoffs.

A Johnny-come-lately to the phenomenon recently sat down for an inaugural viewing of "CSI: Miami." First, our smooth-talking (and incredibly intuitive) prime-time forensic scientists targeted a man who manufactured fiberglass surfboards when traces of fiberglass resin were found on a crime-scene ski mask. Later, the killer was fingered because the vise he used to make a piece of jewelry for the victim's wife left the exact same microscopic imprint on the shotgun he sawed off to commit the murder.

As investigative work goes, that's sexy stuff. Kinda makes you want to find a job in forensic science. A number of College of Biological Sciences (CBS) grads have done just that, and are working at places like the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) and the Armed Forces' DNA identification lab near Washington, D.C.

Kathryn Hanna, faculty adviser for the CBS Forensics Club, has witnessed an explosion of students interested in forensic science following the popularity of the CSI shows. In the spring of 2002, the club had about a dozen interested students. Two years later, there were more than 200 names on the club's e-mail list.

There is no formal degree program in forensic science in the Upper Midwest, but that does not and should not curtail CBS students' interest in the field. Any training in the basic sciences is good background.

Jennifer Zimdars, who graduated in 1999 with a degree in genetics and cell biology, decided to pursue an advanced degree, and attended graduate school at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for forensic science. After an internship, she landed a position at the American Registry of Pathology's DNA identification lab in Rockville, Maryland.

Working under the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, the lab's primary charge is "to identify all fallen soldiers" of the U.S. armed forces, Zimdars says. This includes a growing effort to confirm the identities of soldiers from previous wars, including Vietnam and Korea.

"Over the years, we've identified many fallen [soldier] remains, including [those in] the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier," says Zimdars.

Her office has also handled some extremely high-profile work-most notably the DNA analysis of Saddam Hussein as well as his two sons, Uday and Qusay, who were killed by coalition forces in Iraq. Samples were compared using Y chromosomal STR (short tandem repeat) DNA analysis.

"Uday and Qusay and Saddam all had the exact same profile, and also the bodyguard [who was killed with the sons]," says Zimdars. "It probably means that the bodyguard is a close relative somewhere in the paternal line."

Zimdars says there's no doubt that the CSI shows have spawned a dramatic increase in interest in forensic science. Over the past few years, Zimdars says, applications to George Washington "have probably more than quadrupled." "We're getting thousands of applications for about 200 spaces," she says.

Another CBS alum's entry into forensic science predates the debut of CSI by many years; in fact, it even precedes the extensive use of DNA testing. When Jim Dougherty, whose 1989 degree was in microbiology, was hired by the Minnesota BCA in 1990, the lab was still doing serological testing of samples based on proteins in the blood.

"I was hired with a number of other scientists to start forensic DNA analysis, and by 1991 I was doing case work in DNA analysis," Dougherty says. He continued that work throughout the '90s and went on to become a crime scene team leader, processing two of the scenes in the Katie Poirer abduction case. In 2001, Dougherty moved to the BCA's new office in Bemidji, Minnesota--a satellite lab for the St. Paul headquarters--where he is assistant lab director.

Dougherty says that the BCA typically hires students who have a degree in a science. "They're in the program they need to be in if they're in the College of Biological Sciences," he says. "If you want to work in the field of DNA analysis, you need to have biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, and some kind of a statistics class." There are currently seven CBS alums working in the BCA's St. Paul office, and an eighth will soon join them.

As for the merits of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "CSI: Miami," and other highly rated dramas capturing the fancies of armchair detectives just about every weekday evening?

Dougherty says that the shows have changed the lives of forensic scientists, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. While there is increased interest from students and a lot more requests for tours of the BCA facilities, he says there is a definite downside. In some cases, the DNA analysis that some jurors expect to occur may not be necessary or, for that matter, even possible. "It makes juries expect a lot," he says. "They think they know how we do our jobs because of what they see on TV."

What does Zimdars think of the shows? The science can actually be very accurate, she says. "What isn't realistic is the turnaround time," she says. "And of course the drama associated with it. I don't really watch them anymore, because I know the daily routine, and the amount of grunt work, are so different."

From BIO, the magazine of the College of Biological Sciences.