Jan 02 2024

Central State University: Developing a New Kind of Forensic Studies Program

CareerForensic

Today’s guest blog is written and condensed by Tara Luther, Promega. Reposted from the ISHI Report with permission.


 

Utilizing a National Science Foundation grant, Central State University will be enhancing several programs in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences over the next three years, including the introduction of a Forensic Studies minor.

 

Genevieve Ritchie-Ewing, an assistant professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the university headed the grant application and is guiding the development of the minor, including the creation of the classes.

 

We spoke with Genevieve to learn more about the new minor.

 

 

 

Can you please tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be an assistant professor at Central State University?

I received my B.S. from Millersville University in Millersville, Pennsylvania. After graduation, I did some work with wild animals in Florida, but ultimately decided that I wanted to focus on humans instead of other animals.

 

I always had an interest in forensics so after researching my options, I chose a graduate program in anthropology at the University of Tennessee (UT) in Knoxville where I could learn forensic anthropology. My thesis work at UT focused on human decomposition as UT is home to the famed Anthropological Research Facility, a human decomposition research facility created by Dr. Bill Bass (often called “the Body Farm” although the anthropology program at UT doesn’t support this name). For my thesis, I compared human decomposition in indoor and outdoor environments.

 

After graduation, I accepted two positions, one as a crime scene technician at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and the other as an autopsy technician at the Knox County Medical Examiner’s Office. Through TBI, I learned how to process a crime scene including proper documentation and evidence collection techniques.

 

While working in Tennessee, I met my husband, Chris, who was working at Wright Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. I decided to leave TBI, move to Ohio, and pursue my PhD in anthropology at the Ohio State University under the direction of Dr. Barbara Piperata. My dissertation research focused on medical anthropology rather than forensic anthropology.

 

In 2018, while finishing my dissertation, I started teaching classes as an adjunct at Central State University (CSU). A full-time, tenure-track assistant professor position in the Sociology program opened up in 2019 around the time I was completing my PhD. The Sociology program is part of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The department chair at that time, Dr. Lynn Rigsbee, in particular, was very interested in my multidisciplinary background and my training in forensics because he felt it would help me create curricula that would be beneficial to all of the programs in the department. I officially received assistant professor position in the fall of 2019.

 

 

Please share more about the Forensic Studies minor that you’re spearheading at Central State.

The Forensic Studies minor is a multidisciplinary minor that focuses on the social science forensic fields such as forensic psychology, forensic anthropology, and forensic social work. Central State already has a Forensic Science minor in the Chemistry program that teaches students the skills they need to work in a forensic laboratory. The Forensic Studies minor is for students who want to work in other aspects of forensics.

 

It gives students a base of forensic knowledge through a forensic science course in Central State’s Chemistry program and a crime scene analysis course in CSU’s Criminal Justice program. The other two required courses are Introduction to Criminal Justice and the Sociology program’s Social Problems course. Students then choose one DEI elective to build on the information in the Social Problems course and two electives that allow them to specialize their forensic knowledge in a particular social science such as psychology.

 

 

What drove you to create this program?

As I mentioned above, the Chemistry program at CSU already had a Forensic Science minor, but I didn’t feel that the chemistry minor captured the social science forensic fields. Since my own interest in forensics came through the social sciences, I wanted to offer opportunities for the students in my department to explore those fields.

 

As Central State is an underfunded HBCU (historically black college/university), I also felt our students lacked access to the expensive materials and equipment needed in forensic work that other universities were more likely to possess. Creating this minor gave me the chance to apply for grant funding not only for the minor, but to fund a forensic laboratory as well.

 

Lastly, I believe that the social sciences, particularly sociology, psychology, and anthropology, are overlooked STEM fields and I wanted to shine a spotlight on these fields. The National Science Foundation often considers these fields as STEM fields, so I searched for grant opportunities there first. The National Science Foundation kindly funded our efforts with a nearly $400,000 grant through the HBCU-Undergraduate Program Targeted Infusion Project program.

 

 

You have had a diverse career path from working at the Anthropological Research Facility (ARF) to working as a crime scene technician and an autopsy technician. How do you feel that working in those varied areas has benefitted you and made you more well-rounded?

Throughout my academic and working careers, my research and interests have always been interdisciplinary. I drew on my background in biology and anthropology as well as incorporated theory and methods from psychology, sociology, geography, and other fields for my dissertation research and more recent publications and conference presentations. I feel like this has given me the ability to see problems and issues from multiple perspectives and understand where others are coming from more easily.

 

In forensics, working at ARF, as a crime scene technician, and an autopsy technician similarly has shown me multiple perspectives over the wide range of forensic fields. Many times forensics is equated only with forensic laboratory work that relies heavily on chemistry and biology. My background includes forensics in many contexts, which is one of the reasons I developed the Forensic Studies minor.

 

 

Will you be incorporating any elements from your past into the new Forensic Studies minor?

Absolutely, I will be incorporating many elements from my past into the new Forensic Studies minor. One of the required courses is my Crime Scene Analysis course, which draws on my training and experience as a crime scene technician at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. I also am developing a Forensic Anthropology course as an elective for this minor. I’m using the academic knowledge of osteology and human variation I gained as part of the M.A. program at the University of Tennessee as well as my training at ARF to develop that course.

 

 

One of the key focus areas in the new minor is evidence collection. Why was this important to you to include? How does this differ from other programs available to students?

Evidence collection is a vital and often overlooked component of crime scene processing. Collecting evidence properly preserves the evidence needed for arrest and prosecution. Showing students how to collect and handle evidence properly prepares them for many forensic fields. Forensic social workers, for example, need to know how to advise victims in a way that preserves evidence and avoid contaminating evidence themselves. Focusing on evidence collection also quickly dispels myths about crime scene work. Processing a crime scene is a time-consuming, detail-focused task. Many students (like the rest of the public) see crime scene processing on television and in movies. Those portrayals are misleading and students who want to pursue forensic fields need to know the truth about how those fields function.

 

 

Similarly, how will the differing curriculum benefit the students graduating and the field as a whole?

I think I mostly answered this question in the last question, but I would like to add that students are much more likely to have successful careers if they have a realistic sense of what the job they have chosen entails. This is true for any career, but since forensics is seen often in the media, I believe students are more likely to have misconceptions about what working in forensics is truly like. Hiring new employees with a clear understanding of how important, detail-oriented, and sometimes tedious forensic work is helps the field in multiple ways by making retention easier and mistakes less likely to happen.

 

 

Another highlight of your program is the focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. How will you be incorporating this for students and why did you feel it was important to explore?

I incorporated DEI in two ways. First, one of the required courses is a Social Problems course. This sociology course focuses on social problems in nationally and internationally from multiple perspectives. It highlights several types of inequality (gender, racial, socioeconomic, etc.) and shows how inequality affects social problems. Second, students have to choose one DEI elective from several courses such as a social work course on social and cultural sensitivity and a sociology course on race and ethnic relations.

 

I felt it was important to add in a DEI component because DEI is an integral piece of social sciences like sociology and anthropology. I also developed this minor for an HBCU (historically black college/university). Central State students are more acutely aware of inequality because they frequently face discrimination on a daily basis. Giving them a better understanding of DEI helps them not only deal with the lack of diversity they are likely to see in their forensic jobs, but also gives them the skills needed to work with a wide range of people.

 

 

What is the current state of DEI within the forensic field in your opinion? How do you hope to see the field grow in this area in the next five or ten years?

Like many STEM fields and law enforcement jobs, forensics lacks diversity in multiple senses of the word. The result of this is a reduced ability to understand the impact of different perspectives on forensic work. Many forensic jobs also involve frequent interactions with the public. Without having a full range of diversity in these jobs, communities are less likely to trust and assist forensic personnel and forensic personnel are more likely to harbor biases and misconceptions. Lastly, having more people with an understanding of DEI in a field helps make adding diversity easier. Underrepresented populations feel more included and are more likely to stay in those careers as a result.

 

 

Our keynote speaker this year focused on trauma and resilience, and it continues to be a topic of importance within the field. In your past professions you must have dealt with some incredibly challenging situations. How did this affect you? What do you tell your students to prepare them for what they might encounter in the future?

I did deal with several challenging situations in many of previous professions. Focusing on the work is usually what helped me through these situations. Knowing that the work I was doing was an important part of solving crimes and preventing further crimes mattered. Having said that, I eventually decided to focus on live people rather than dead people for a reason. I’m honest with my students about how difficult it can be seeing the results of violence on a regular basis. I want them to know that up front because as I said they need to enter these fields with their eyes wide open.

 

 

How can potential students learn more about your program?

Students interested in the Forensic Studies minor are welcome to contact me directly (gritchie-ewing@centralstate.edu). Currently, this minor is only available to Central State University students, so they would have to be admitted into the university in order to declare the minor. There are future plans to create a forensic certificate that combines the Forensic Sciences minor currently in our chemistry program with the new Forensic Studies minor. The certificate would be available to law enforcement professionals and other interested parties without the requirement to become a full-time student at Central State.

 

 

Is there anything else you’d like to include that we’ve missed?

I would like to acknowledge the efforts of Dr. V. Paula Redman in the CSU Criminal Justice program and Drs. Leanne Petry and Suzanne Seleem in the CSU Chemistry program. While I am spearheading this program, we are working together to create this new minor and several forensic courses including Forensic Anthropology, Forensic Psychology, Forensic Social Work, and Crime Mapping.

 

 

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