WVU Forensics program celebrating 20 years of growth

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The WVU Forensics Science program wasn’t always viewed as a high-quality program with world-class equipment and learning material.

It had to start somewhere — 20 years ago, in fact, in Morgantown.

“Adjuncts who would come in from law enforcement and from the FBI because they were very interested in working with fingerprint data,” said Dr. Suzanne Bell, Department Chair. “We went, initially, very heavily into latent finger print and crime scene investigation.”

“And it grew from there,” she added.

20 years later and with 200 declared students majoring, the program now offers a PhD, is considered among the best nationally, and is constantly touted by President Gordon Gee as the national standard for a forensics program.

“Currently, we have four crime scene houses, we have a crime scene garage, a ballistics research facility,” Dr. Bell said. “The facilities are unmatched in the world. I’m quite confident of that. I’ve traveled quite a bit. That’s something that West Virginia can be very proud of.”

The popularity of the STEM-heavy program has often hit peaks during particularly well-publicized forensics investigations — even resulting in an entire television franchise surrounding the concept of forensics. But Bell said “CSI” is hardly the first time a forensics craze has been seen around the globe.

“This started really in the late 1840s with a toxicologist named (Matheiu) Orfila, who did a high profile case in France,” she said on WAJR’s “The Gary Bowden Show” last week. “And then that University was flooded with applicants. Then the next spike came with the publication of Sherlock Holmes novels.”

Bell said interested future students should know what they’re getting into when they decide to follow this path.

“There are misconceptions about what forensics science is,” she said. “It is, first and foremost, a science degree. Students will take biology, chemistry, physics, organic chemistry as a prelude to that, because you have to function as a scientist. You have to understand the scientific mindset.”

For many students, the challenge can often be too great, Bell said.

“When they get to the University, they may end up on a different pathway, but that’s fine,” she said. “We want to make sure they understand what’s involved, because it is challenging.”

There are currently two students in WVU’s PhD program, first established in 2016.

“So we are playing with the largest universities in the country now,” Bell said. “We are the only one that has that, and we have a very strong research focus now at the graduate level, which is important for the profession of forensic science in building the infrastructure.”

Bell did say those who do follow the path are often rewarded. 84 percent of the May 2016 graduates found career placement or attended graduate school.

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