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Moses Schanfield, department chair, answered your questions. [READ]


By Heather O. Milke
Illustration by Campbell Laird
Photos by Claire Duggan

On television, the characters of the popular CSI shows are crime scene investigating superheroes. They gather evidence at the scene, analyze it in the lab, and make the linchpin discovery that solves the whole crime in an hour of our viewing time. In the real world, forensic science is a highly specialized field in which the above scenario is handled by not one but several professionals who make careers in their areas of expertise.


Some 2,000 people have graduated from the Department of Forensic Sciences. Placed through the article are profiles of a few of them who agreed to share some details of their work.

Richard Fox, MS ’71, MA ’85
Director, Mid-Atlantic Laboratory

Fox, part of the program’s first graduating class, has spent most of his career at the DEA and its predecessor, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

Currently, he oversees all crime-related lab activities, such as analyzing and processing controlled substances, fingerprint examination, assistance in crime scene investigations such as clandestine laboratories and vacuum searches, providing expert witness testimony, evaluating new technology, and participating in training programs.

Fox recalls one instance when he was contacted to support the seizure of what turned out to be three clandestine phencyclidine (PCP) laboratories. “Approximately 260 exhibits of suspected controlled drugs, reagents, and intermediates were collected along with some notes describing the synthesis methodology being used,” he says.

“At trial, in Montgomery County, Md., I was on the witness stand for almost two days reporting on the results of my analyses. … The defendants were convicted of the manufacture of a controlled substance PCP and were incarcerated for many years.”

John J. Tobin Jr., MS ’75
Director, Forensic Sciences Division

With the Maryland State Police for 31 years, Tobin became director of Forensic Sciences Division in 2003. He also teaches forensics courses at Towson University and other Baltimore-area schools.

Tobin finds his biggest challenge in the job is “trying to meet the goals of our mission, that is the opening or unlocking the story that is contained in crime scene evidence, with my current budget.”

Tobin remembers his time at GW well, in the early days of the department. “Some of the best courses I had were from Professor Jim Starrs. One of the things he instilled in me as a forensic scientist is that there are ethics in this field and they need to be addressed as well as the analytical portion.”

Carrie (Parker) Whitcomb,
MS ’76

Whitcomb, currently with the Orlando-based NCFS, had a successful career in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service for many years.

In one of her most interesting cases, a young woman who had placed a pipe bomb under her husband’s truck in one state also had placed a mail bomb addressed to him in a collection box in an adjacent state. The package was brought to her lab, which found an artistic rendering of a postage meter strip that had a serial number from a third state. The explosive was found inside a video cassette and was designed to detonate when the cassette was removed from its container.

“The evidence that connected the suspect to the device was a tool mark on a cut edge of a piece of tin can that was part of the triggering mechanism on the device,” she says. “The mark on the cut tin can matched known marks from cutters in the suspect’s father’s workshop.”

The suspect was arrested, found guilty, and served time for her crime.

Amy Wong, MFS ’82
Director, Northern Laboratory

Wong has been with the Virginia Division of Forensic Science since 1983 and became the lab’s director in 1992. Her lab provides all Virginia law enforcement agencies with various forensic services.

“One of the more interesting cases I personally worked on involved the alleged rape of a woman who was attacked by a would-be rapist in her own home. He threatened her with a knife while holding her down on her bed.”

The victim’s statements reported that the suspect tried to rape her but couldn’t “perform,” so to speak. The victim’s bloodstained bathrobe and bedding were submitted to the lab, Wong says, but the investigators said any bloodstains were probably from the victim, who was menstruating at the time. Investigators also suggested a search for semen would produce no results.

“Nonetheless, I decided to test the blood soaked rear of the bathrobe for semen just for the hell of it. Surprise of surprises, although I didn’t find any semen, the blood was not the victim’s, but rather, consistent with the blood type of the suspect!” she says.

Wong notes that the victim apparently cut himself with his own knife and bled at the crime scene. The case, she says, is “illustrative of the fact that forensic scientists must remain skeptical of everything, including statements from the victim and police.”

Rich Gervasoni, MS ’81
Chief Forensic Scientist

Gervasoni has been with the Montgomery County lab for 28 years and has additional background in the analysis of drugs and fire debris for arson cases. “As with most, if not all crime labs, the most challenging issue is dealing with large, and continually increasing, case loads and attempting to meet court-established deadlines with present staffing levels working in crowded conditions,” he says.

Gervasoni says the GW program broadened his knowledge beyond his experience in drug analysis and enabled him to teach college courses, which he does at Capitol College in Laurel, Md., and Montgomery College in Rockville, Md. He also serves as treasurer of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Forensic Scientists.

Traci Moran, MFS ’95
Forensic Document Examiner

For 10 years, Traci Moran has been examining documents for criminal cases and testifying in court for the Secret Service. She was hired right out of school, after meeting another student who helped her obtain an interview there.

Moran cites her Secret Service training program to become a forensic document examiner as one of the biggest challenges of her career. “It was an intensive, apprenticeship style of training that lasted for three years,” she says. In addition, she participates in regular continuing education, which is critical in her area of forensics.

Moran returned to GW last year to share some of her expertise by teaching the department’s questioned document course.

Larry Olson, MFS ’83
Forensic Document Analyst/Ink Chemist

Olson has been, since 1985, with the Chicago-based IRS lab, where helps its criminal investigation division analyze documents relating to investigations of tax or financial fraud, including filing of false returns, money laundering, and organized crime.

“Our cases tend to be large and involved comprising numerous documents covering a number of years. It is very satisfying when the evidence comes together to present a clear picture of how the documents were created, and occasionally, how a fraud was accomplished.”

One of Olson’s most interesting cases involved a lawyer and his clients who were charged with money laundering, he says. The evidence included three promissory notes dated June, August, and December 1986.

The documents and typewriter suspected of being used to make the notes were submitted to his lab. Olson determined that the documents had been backdated, because the ink used was not manufactured until January 1987.

His lab then analyzed the correction tape in the typewriter and found a match between the tape and corrections made on the documents, which were typed in succession. Their work confirmed testimony from the lawyer’s former secretary, who said she typed the notes in late 1987. “The defendants were convicted, the attorney was eventually disbarred, and their subsequent appeals all failed.”

Jeffrey Miller, MFS ’99
Crime Scene Detective

Miller has been with the Fairfax police for 24 years with the last 16 spent as a crime scene detective. He now teaches the GW program’s homicide investigation class and two crime scene classes.

On Oct. 14, 2002, Miller was the crime scene officer for the Washington-area sniper shooting at the Home Depot in Falls Church, Va. He later was assigned to the prosecution task force responsible for preparing for the two court cases. He spent a year gathering evidence from around the country and spent three months in Virginia Beach where the cases were tried.

“Now that the first round of trials is over, I am back working regular cases in Fairfax County,” he says. “The task force is due to start up again this spring when more trials will commence.”

The sniper case and that of Mir Kansi, who killed two people in front of the CIA in 1992, were Miller’s biggest jobs to date. Kansi had fled to Pakistan but was brought back, tried, convicted, and executed here.

Carrie McNamara, MFS ’01
Special Agent

For two years, McNamara has worked at the NCIS, which, just as television portrays, has a motto to “prevent terrorism, protect secrets, and reduce crime,” she says.

Currently she is attending a one-year Arabic language training course in Washington, D.C., and is being sent to the Middle East next year. She initially will be stationed in Bahrain. ”However, investigative missions could potentially encompass a multitude of Arabic countries, from Egypt to Iraq,“ she says.

McNamara says her most challenging issue has been coping with all the responsibilities and casework that come her way. Despite that fact that she has a relatively short tenure there, she has served as the primary contact for many death, rape, and assault cases. However, she reports, at NCIS, no one remains inexperienced for long, so, as she was, her newer colleagues are quickly brought up to speed.

Her most interesting case involved ”a U.S. Marine Corps recruit who was sentenced to the psychiatric ward of Fort Leavenworth for bludgeoning his drill instructor with the butt-stock of his M-16 rifle.“

Television has been good and bad for GW’s Department of Forensic Sciences. On one hand, it has brought many new students to its doors. They have watched the popular shows and are looking to establish similar careers for themselves. However, once the students arrive, the faculty has the tough job of explaining the realities of the profession—that it is hard work, it is not all glitz and glamour, and television laboratories have a lot more money than any real lab will ever have.

Four professors spoke with GW Magazine to share how their department prepares students for this increasingly popular profession.

GW’s Department of Forensic Sciences is one of only a handful in the country that trains people in the applied science of forensics. GW’s name is well known in the field, and many alumni are serving in senior level positions (see sidebar).

GW has graduated more people into the field than any other program. The department graduated 115 students last year. More than 200 students enrolled in the fall, making it the largest forensic science program in the country, Schanfield says. And that is no surprise, given its Washington, D.C., location, which provides ample job opportunities in federal and state settings as well as abundant internship opportunities.

Most of today’s students possess heavy science backgrounds, but the program did not start out that way. In the late 1960s, the FBI approached GW about setting up a training program for its agents. Between 1969 and 1975, the program’s teachers were mostly lawyers, sociologists, and psychiatrists.

In 1975, Professor Walter Rowe was hired as a forensic chemist and serologist. With a Harvard PhD in chemistry and military crime lab experience, he was exactly what GW was looking for. Professor Nick Lappas was hired as a forensic toxicologist that same year. The two professors, along with Charles O’Rear, chair of the program for some 20 years, are credited with infusing the program with its science core.

In the early days the program was heavily funded by contracts from the FBI and and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, the predecessor of National Institute of Justice.

The department, part of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, is now chaired by Moses S. Schanfield, a forensic biologist formerly in charge of the Rochester, N.Y., crime lab. Schanfield has been involved in forensic DNA testing and basic science research for 30 years and ran a private forensic biology lab for 15 years.

Under his leadership during the past two years, the program has expanded to offer at least eight different graduate degree programs that lead to a master of forensic sciences, master of science in forensic science, or a five-year bachelor of science/master of science. Student concentrations include molecular biology, forensic toxicology, forensic chemistry, high-technology crime investigation, and security management.

The list of degrees has changed dramatically over the years. “The original people who came here were people in law enforcement who worked in the streets. They were investigators and detectives,” Schanfield says. “In the last five to 10 years, the vast majority of the students have had degrees in either biology or chemistry.”

The accreditation of forensic labs and related federal educational requirements contribute to the need for scientific specialists, Schanfield says. To prepare students for work in the field, more than half of GW’s forensics courses are now lab-based. The department spends at least $50,000 every year maintaining lab equipment and paying for supplies. And four graduate teaching assistants run the lab for 60 hours each week.

When students arrive to study at GW’s Department of Forensic Sciences, they must choose concentrations that lead them to either laboratory or field careers. Unlike on television, most real forensic experts have to choose one or the other.

For students who have chosen to work in crime labs, DNA testing and high-tech crime investigation are the two biggest growth areas.

Traditionally, labs are small, with few employees handling the core lineup of “drugs, guns, and fingerprints,” Schanfield says.

But with the passage of the DNA Identification Act of 1994, the landscape of the crime lab changed. After passage of the act, many crime labs became accredited and went online as part of a national DNA indexing system. Such moves required large increases in manpower.

“To give you an idea, when the state of New York set up its database, it needed to hire 60 biologists,” he says.

Federal testing requirements are the reason for the additional labor. If a lab is federally funded, 10 percent of the samples the lab puts into the database must be what’s called “case” samples, which cannot be tested very quickly like non-case samples.

The other growth area, high-tech crime investigation, is one in which GW has concentrated its efforts in recent years. “We have one of the first degree programs in computer forensics,” Schanfield notes. “Our computer people usually have jobs before they even finish the program.”

Related areas include video analysis—“an absolute growth area within forensic science because of all of the surveillance cameras,” he says. Another is security management, i.e., terrorism protection.

In addition to DNA lab studies and high-tech crime investigation, the department continues to educate in the nuts and bolts of forensic science to also prepare for jobs in the field.

Edward Robinson, MFS ’91, teaches GW’s crime scene investigation courses. Before coming to GW, Robinson spent 25 years with the Arlington County, Va., police as a crime scene investigator. Anticipating retirement, he turned to education for a second career. GW hired him in 2000 to develop the departments’ crime scene investigation concentration.

Students interested in CSI coursework have been studying at GW since the department opened its doors in the 1970s. They come from many of the neighboring military and federal government offices.

“ATF, FBI, Secret Service—they all get their degrees here, as well as people in the Air Force OSI (Office of Special Investigations), the Navy’s NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service)—just like the television show,” Robinson says.

His students are taking jobs as special agents, detectives, crime scene technicians, or medicolegal death investigators. They’re working in all branches of the military as well as the State Department, Secret Service, and the agencies Robinson mentioned such as the FBI.

Robinson teaches them anything related to crime scene work, including forensic photography, firearms identification, and crime scene techniques such as how to process fingerprints and bloodstains, and how to analyze blood spattering, shoeprints, and tire tracks. They also work with alternate light sources to find body fluids, fibers, and other trace evidence.

With growing interest in the profession, crime scene jobs are getting harder to come by. Therefore, Robinson stresses academic theory and real-world applications, “so they can go to an employer and say that they already know how to do those tasks.”

Robinson is well aware of the realities of the profession he teaches. He has a quote in his office that reads, “Forensic science begins at the crime scene. If the investigator cannot recognize, collect, and package evidence properly, no amount of equipment or expertise will salvage the situation.”

“That’s from Richard Saferstein’s Criminalists, seventh edition,” Robinson says. “What it means is that you can have all these fantastic, well-qualified PhDs and experts in a lab who can do all sorts of miracles with the evidence. But if it’s not properly collected, preserved, packaged, and processed at the crime scene, it may never see the inside of a courtroom because it could be thrown out with a legal challenge. So it’s absolutely critical that the first entry into the law enforcement arena be done properly and with highly trained and skilled personnel. That’s why well-trained evidence techs are so important. And that’s why I’m here—that’s my mission.”

Like Robinson, Professor Walter F. Rowe is deeply familiar with procedural requirements. Rowe’s speciality is teaching forensic chemistry at the graduate level, in which he trains students to analyze various types of trace evidence such as glass, soil, paint, ignitable liquids, and explosive residues. Among undergraduates, Rowe is well known for his introduction to forensic science courses.

As one of the first two professors hired in the department, Rowe has been teaching these courses since the 1970s, and much has changed in the way that he teaches. “The impact of computers has been enormous,” he notes. “A lot of laboratories are almost paperless now—all of the casework is stored in computer files and the instruments dump their data into these files.”

Additionally, the advent of DNA testing has created a huge need for the development of standards. Rowe serves on an industry committee that helps determine these procedures.

“DNA has had a big impact in ways that people don’t really appreciate,” Rowe says. “The struggle to get DNA admitted into court led to the formation of several technical working groups to establish standards for a variety of areas. These groups are answering questions like what kind of training and education should people have, what are the appropriate methods for working on this kind of problem, and what are the conclusions that you can put in a report and testify to. So all of this sort of evolved out of the development of DNA profiling. We often refer to it as the collateral damage, i.e., it wasn’t just the forensic biology part of the lab that was impacted, it was several other areas as well.”

Rowe also consults in forensic chemistry and deals heavily with digital imagery in photographing samples and evidence. These days, he uses computers to manipulate photographs in various ways to make points of interest in the photography more visible. People get nervous, Rowe says, about digital imagery and think that it is easier to fake than film. He finds that to be untrue. “In fact, I can create bogus photographs that will defy detection because I can do it in front of the lens. And that kind of fakery has been done since the invention of photography.”

Associate Professor Nicholas Lappas, who also joined GW in 1975 to teach courses in forensic toxicology, medicinal chemistry, and drugs of abuse, after working five years at the Allegheny County (Pa.) coroner’s office, enjoys getting out of the laboratory and into the courtroom.

Aside from teaching, he also serves as an expert witness in court cases. “I’ve testified almost a hundred times over the years in those kinds of cases—criminal matters, drunk driving, homicidal cases, vehicular homicide, things of that nature. And I also do civil cases, medical malpractice, product liability—anything having to do with drugs, really.”

After a case settles, Lappas often brings the case facts back to the classroom and assigns them as projects to the students. “They enjoy hearing war stories that are relevant to what we are doing,” he says.

Lappas finds the experience very useful for students. “It’s a different ball game once you get into the courtroom and you’re asked for your opinions and asked to substantiate them, all within the framework of talking to a jury that may have an average educational background, depending on where you’re testifying, of eighth grade. And you’re trying to explain very sophisticated, complex issues of toxicology or DNA analysis or something else, so you really have to bring it down without changing the validity of what you say.”

His favorite test question is to ask students to define various phrases used in the profession in 25 words or less without using scientific or technical jargon so that someone with an eighth-grade education will understand it.

“I ask them to define gas chromatography. What is an enzyme? And do it in English. No talk about molecules and receptors and isothermal—nothing like that—just, can you do it? And it’s very tough for them. It takes skill to do that because you can’t put the jury to sleep. There’s a picture on the outside of my door here of a jury, and 11 of them are just reading the newspaper, looking at the ceiling, sleeping. But there’s one person in that picture who is paying attention. And I tell my students that’s the person you talk to. You have to convince that person of what you’re saying and hopefully that person will take it back into the jury room and explain it to everybody else.”

It’s a combination of communications and science, which isn’t very common. “Our students are people who don’t want to spend their lives in a windowless laboratory,” Lappas says. “They want to do something that is societally relevant and yet they want to get out of the lab and do something else.”

Students have ample opportunities to get out of the GW lab while in the program. It is no secret among the alumni that GW’s labs are in close quarters (the program has been turning away qualified students due to space constraints). However, the department is fortunate to have nearby facilities that take students as interns, such as the FBI, Bode Technology, Armed Forces DNA Identificaiton Laboratory, NASA, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Often, these places become full-time employers for students upon graduation.

Schanfield’s hopes are to grow the program further once more lab facilities are available. “One of the objectives is getting enough teaching lab space so that we can increase the number of graduate courses with laboratories.”

Schanfield hopes the University will eventually consider building a new science building—one that will surpass the technology that has been poured into local high schools in the area, where students are getting accustomed to advanced facilities.

At the high school level, forensics is being used to teach science to students who increasingly are turning away from science because of a lack of interest in the subject matter. “I remember when I took physics as an undergraduate that it was boring. It was boring as dirt. So I went over and took biophysics and biology in the medical school and that was much better because it was applied. It was things like measuring how fast drugs got through an injection site to your heart. You can make things much more interesting by putting them into a different kind of a context.

“Because forensic science is so visible it’s become very popular as a teaching aid to teach science in high schools and junior high schools. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences is running a program to train high school students and high school teachers.”

Schanfield, too, has provided in-service training at high schools. “With additional space, one of the things we would like to do with the Graduate School of Education and Human Development is some outreach teacher training to teach science teachers about forensic science. Because forensic science uses physics, chemistry, and biology, there are lots of things that you can do to create interesting scenarios for students.”

The department has come a long way since its beginnings in law enforcement education. With the help of movies and television, current interest in the GW department is through the roof.

Rowe hopes the department will live on long after he, Lappas, and Schanfield are gone. “Historically what has happened in forensic science degree programs is that one or two people on a campus who are interested in forensic science decide to set up a program. It never usually evolves to the point where it’s a department like ours. They’ll set up some courses and offer a degree, but the person who is the prime mover retires, dies, or moves on, and the program collapses. You can’t get rid of chemistry or a physics department because you can’t have a legitimate university without those departments. But if you don’t have a forensic science department, that’s no big deal. So the big problem has always been getting past the first generation.”

The deck seems to be stacked in the department’s favor. With increasing student interest, new focuses on antiterrorism and high-technology crimes, and prospects for new facilities, GW’s Department of Forensic Sciences is making a permanent mark on the academic map.

Are you a forensic science graduate? The department would like to hear from you via email at

Forensics’ “Starrs”

On campus and in the media, Professor James Starrs is well known for his exhumations of famous people. His first case, in 1989, involved the five victims of Alfred Packer, the “Colorado Cannibal.” More recent work related to high-profile cases such as the Boston Strangler, Jesse James, and Billy the Kidd, catch the attention of many.

And attention is exactly what he wanted when he began this work. The reward, he says, was not the personal notoriety that comes with the job. It was something else.

As a law professor with a science background, he quickly realized how to get noticed by his students. “You look out there at that mute audience of students and you wonder what’s happening in their minds. I just didn’t see concrete evidence that I was reaching them, so I decided I would do something that would assure that I would see the results. Doing field work with the students has that consequence.”

One of the five founders of the GW forensics program, Starrs is a professor in GW’s law school and a professor in the Department of Forensic Sciences. When he is not teaching law or serving as an expert to the media, Starrs is rounding up groups of students to assist him with his field work and giving testimony in court cases.

Starrs recalls other reasons why he decided to turn to high-profile exhumations to prove his points. “In addition to wanting to reach my students, I was sick up to here of hearing of the reliability of confessions and informers and eye witness testimony,” all of which Starrs calls highly suspect.

Recent cases he has handled concern disproving not only eye witness testimony, which so often is inaccurate, but also discrediting fingerprint evidence. Starrs says he has seen cases in which fingerprints have been found to be way off the mark.

“Putting science on parade” is how Starrs describes his exhumations and other field work, in which he uses the more recent science of DNA profiling to help solve older crimes and mysteries, as well as remote sensing techniques to locate grave sites.

Starrs says his office is cluttered with requests. “People are just dying to be dug up.”

He plans to continue his field work, despite the fact that he does not receive monetary compensation for it.

Starrs on an archaeological excavation in Gettysburg, Pa., to search for the remains of two long-lost Confederate soldiers. Starrs says enjoys being in the field with his students more than anything: “Up at Gettysburg with the students, it was just delightful—being able to explain what we’re looking for and why we’re looking for it.”

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