Georgia College’s new forensics program a first in Middle GA

Georgia College’s new forensics program a first in Middle GA

The forensics lab.
The forensics lab.
L ike their heroes on TV crime shows, Georgia College students will soon be able to do a little scientific sleuthing of their own.

They’ll be able to detect explosive TNT residue, analyze DNA fingerprints, determine drug usage from a strand of hair and identify signatures by the type of ink or pen used.

Demand for these kinds of skills is rising, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which projects a 14 percent growth in entry-level forensic science jobs through 2028.

In recent years, chemistry professors at Georgia College also noted increased student curiosity about criminal analysis. This prompted a new concentration in forensic chemistry, the first of its kind in Middle Georgia.

“Drawing on the strengths of Georgia College’s liberal arts mission, our forensic chemistry concentration is designed as an interdisciplinary program bringing together chemistry, biology and criminal justice to prepare students for the field of study,”  said Dr. Chavonda Mills, chair of chemistry, physics and astronomy.

“Beyond the classroom, students will have the opportunity to engage in innovative forensic research in our new state-of-the-art Integrated Science Complex, as well as explore internship opportunities to apply what they’ve learned. This holistic approach will fully prepare students to enter a professional career immediately following graduation.”

I think we all have that built-in detective in us. We want to know why and how. Forensic chemistry explains this at the molecular level.
– Dr. Wathsala Medawala
For the concentration, students will be required to take introduction to criminal justice and introduction to law, as well as biology courses. Two main forensic science courses may be offered next spring—trace evidence and material analysis; and drug and biomaterial analysis—where students will learn about DNA analysis, serology, arson, explosives and other important chemical investigation in forensic chemistry.

Additional teaching labs will cover hands-on training for topics covered in class, such as DNA fingerprinting; analysis of body fluids for drugs; hair analysis for metal poisoning and drug abuse; and detection of explosives. All lab work requires an understanding of sample collection, data analysis and proper usage of science instruments and equipment.

“I think we all have that built-in detective in us. We want to know why and how. Forensic chemistry explains this at the molecular level,” said Dr. Wathsala Medawala, assistant professor of chemistry.

“When forensic-themed courses are offered, students are very excited to take them. It gives them pleasure knowing they can understand the science and even catch mistakes in crime investigation dramas on TV,” she said.

Freshman Madeline Teigen and senior Mia Popkin work to detect amphetamines.
Freshman Madeline Teigen and senior Mia Popkin work to detect amphetamines.

Six Georgia College students are busy producing lab experiments to go along with lessons. They develop available resources and procedures to be appropriate for a college-level lab.

Senior chemistry major Mia Popkin of Jesup, Georgia, and first-year chemistry major Madeline Teigen of Evans, Georgia, are working with Medawala to create step-by-step instructions for lab experiments that analyze and measure levels of amphetamine in urine. Popkin wants to work in a medical lab before going to graduate school, and Teigen is still deciding what area of forensics she might work in, such as ballistics, fingerprinting or blood analysis.

“It’s challenging,” Popkin said, “but it’s good to be challenged in this atmosphere where you have a professor or another student helping you and learning together.”

Another student working with Medawala is senior chemistry major Lauren Lautzenhiser of Bonaire, Georgia. She’s helping to create a lab protocol for DNA fingerprinting. First-year chemistry major Carson Kleider of Dacula, Georgia, works with Dr. Ronald Fietkau to develop experiments in ink analysis and type of pen used in signatures.

Junior Emily Pitts works in the lab."
Junior Emily Pitts works in the lab."
Junior chemistry major Emily Pitts of Griffin works with Fietkau too, combining blood and drug samples into one experiment that’ll test blood-splatter patterns and drug or iron levels in the body. Someday, Pitts would like to work for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) or Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

“I’ve been thinking forensics since about 12. I was obsessed with (the TV show) NCIS as a child. I still am,” she said. “Then, I did a forensics summer camp one year, and I absolutely fell in love with it even more. I was like, ‘Yup, this is what I’m doing with my life.’”

It’s a good feeling knowing I’m helping to build coursework that’s going to be here even after I graduate, and I had a piece in that.
– Junior Emily Pitts

Junior chemistry major Aubrey Reynolds of Augusta wants to go to graduate school before seeking a career with the FBI. She was offered an internship at the FBI in Atlanta last summer, but it got derailed due to COVID-19.

All lab work requires an understanding of sample collection, data analysis and proper usage of science instruments and equipment.
All lab work requires an understanding of sample collection, data analysis and proper usage of science instruments and equipment.
Under the supervision of Dr. Catrena Lisse, Reynolds did some of the original research leading to development of the concentration. First, she tallied how many university chemistry programs nationwide offer forensics. She found a limited number. Then, with Lisse as her mentor, Reynolds helped develop a method for detecting explosive TNT residue, using sol-gel chemistry. Currently, they’re developing a hair analysis experiment to check for abuse and mis-use of pharmaceuticals.

“It’s great experience for me,” Reynolds said, “because these are exactly the kinds of things I’m going to be doing if I get a forensics science job.”

... these are exactly the kinds of things I’m going to be doing if I get a forensics science job.
– Junior Aubrey Reynolds
Reynolds is glad she learned these concepts at a small university, where she says it’s hard to “get lost.” By the end of her first semester, she knew all her professors, and they knew her by name. She feels lucky professors responded to her needs by starting a new concentration in forensics.

Now, she’s being exposed to things she didn’t expect at the undergraduate level.

“Research can really give you a step up in grad school,” Reynolds said, “especially when you have a professor who knows you on a personal level and can testify to what you’ve done.”