Seventeen-year-old Melissa Denish was obsessed with television crime shows.
That obsession gave rise to inspiration.
So, the Abington Senior High School student applied for and was accepted to the Forensic Sciences Mentoring Institute.
The institute, a program sponsored by the nonprofit Frederic Rieders Family Foundation in Abington, selects 12 local high school students out of approximately 50 applicants to work in its laboratory for eight weeks every summer, said Mandy Mohr, the program director. The aim of the foundation, started and eponymously named by a renowned forensic toxicologist who testified in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson and other high-profile cases, is to provide a variety of science education that students otherwise wouldn’t receive in high school.
Many students come to the institute with the same mindset as Denish, said assistant program director Alex Krotulski. While they quickly find out that forensics is more tedious and complicated than portrayed on television, the program provides the students with real forensics lab experience, where they test samples and “evidence” created by laboratory staff, he said.
Students are divided into three groups to study three branches of forensics — toxicology, biology and chemistry. Through these respective branches, they learn how to use different forensics technology, how to work with and test different materials, and the importance of each scientific discipline.
All the students are given hypothetical crime scenarios to work around, Mohr said. Given evidence, such as drug paraphernalia, syringes and bodily fluids, like blood or urine, they’re tasked with testing samples to determine how a “crime” occurred and who was involved.
The lab has much of the technology investigators use in real-world situations, Mohr said. For example, the students work on a machine called an GC-MS, or gas chromatography-mass spectrometry system. The machine can identify compounds in a blood sample so an investigator can determine what substance or substances were in a person’s bloodstream at a given time. Another instrument is a gas chromatography flame ionization detector, or a GC-FID, that can be used to measure alcohol content in a person’s blood sample.
Noni Diarra, a 16-year-old student at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science in Philadelphia, was part of a group that was given white powder to test as part of a crime investigation. When they tested it with reactive substances, including an acid, the group discovered the powder was cocaine.
Her group was also trying to find drug compounds in human tears. By using an instrument that separates compounds in fluids, they were successful.
Meanwhile, the students studying toxicology were testing urine samples as part of an investigation into a sexual assault in which the victim was drugged. Among the pieces of evidence they received were a rolled-up dollar bill, a tobacco pipe and a drinking glass. The students found traces of the anesthetic ketamine on the glass. They then found ketamine in the victim’s blood sample, indicating it was the substance used to disable the person. They also found traces of cocaine and synthetic marijuana during their investigation.
The biology group was investigating the death of a male who was found in his apartment with syringes in his arm. A spoon with brown residue was also found. The students swabbed the spoon and syringe with a Q-tip, and then placed pieces of the swabs in vials for DNA testing. They found that another suspect had been present at the crime scene, and that it wasn’t the deceased male’s DNA on the spoon.
In addition to being up-and-coming forensics experts themselves, the students are taught by recent college graduates who have chosen the field as careers. Meaghan Drumm, 23, of Huntingdon Valley, who majored in biology at Arcadia University in Glenside, Cheltenham, and completed a master’s degree in forensic science, led the toxicology group, while Tim O’Neill, 22, from Horsham, who studied biomedical engineering at Penn State, led the biology group.
Some of the students at the institute this summer are uncertain as to what they want to do in their future, but they enjoy forensics and being in the lab.
“I definitely want to do some sort of research,” said Rebecca Banner, 16, who attends Cheltenham High School. “I don’t know what field, but definitely science.”
Sierra Wolke, 17, is from Warwick’s Jamison section, and an incoming senior at Central Bucks High School East. For her, the program appealed to her enjoyment of solving problems.
“Forensics seemed pretty cool to me because there’s so much that goes into it,” she said. “I love putting pieces together in a puzzle and solving something.”
Being a part of the program also gave her another window into forensics, one she couldn’t get in high school with her chemistry classes there.
“You’re taking a swab of something … and then you match it to someone’s DNA, and that’s really amazing and interesting,” she said. “It’s just a really amazing experience.”
Denish, the Abington teen who plans on majoring in biology, said the program was useful for seeing what happens in a forensics lab.
“I definitely don’t want to do lab work all day, but research and things like that are really interesting.”
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