CSI: UMass Lowell

10/20/2007
By From the Lowell Sun

By Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl

LOWELL -- Since the launch of the CSI television series seven years ago, millions of viewers across the country have been enthralled by fingerprints, blood spatter, fiber fragments and gunshot residue.

Starting next fall, the science behind the popular CBS show will be coming to the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

The school's chemistry and criminal justice departments are teaming up to offer undergraduates a new course of study in forensic science.

"It may be a fad on television, but there is a genuine need for forensic scientists," Dr. Eugene Barry, the chair of the Chemistry Department, said yesterday. "We live in a CSI age and this is the time to make this happen."

The program will be the first of its kind at a Massachusetts public university. Only two other schools in New England -- the University of Rhode Island and Connecticut's New Haven University -- offer forensic programs.

Meanwhile, Barry said, crime laboratories throughout the country are struggling to keep up with a rise in violent crimes.

"These are the crimes that require a processing of the scene, and there's not enough people to analyze these samples," he said. "Crime labs across the country are overburdened."

"New England has suffered greatly in its inability to produce forensic chemists," added Garrett Sheehan, a UMass Lowell adjunct professor and retired Lowell police captain. "But people have become more aware of the importance of science in police investigations."

The program offered by UMass Lowell will be primarily focused on the scientific field, with more than half of the required classes in chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics. Students who complete the program will then receive a bachelor's degree in chemistry with a forensic science option.

"With this degree, they're not locked into forensic science," Barry noted. "They will be licensed as chemists and can pursue other careers in chemistry."

Dr. Eve Buzawa, who chairs the school's Criminal Justice and Criminology Department, believes the program will also be uniquely appealing to some of the students on her side of the university.

"There are many students who are totally capable of taking science, but they want to work in law enforcement, so they come to us," she said. "Science also sometimes has not appealed to students because they couldn't see its potential. But CSI has shown students that science can be fun."

But Sheehan, who worked as a forensic chemist with the Boston Police Department before coming to Lowell, noted that the CSI series is also very much a "double-edged sword."

"It helps us because it increases awareness (about forensic science), but people ... now expect DNA before them in every trial and think that fingerprints can be identified within 15 seconds," he said. "It's great entertainment, but that's not real."

Students interested in UMass Lowell's forensic science program can meet with Dr. Barry at UMass Lowell's Open House tomorrow. The half-day event, which will be held in the Tsongas Arena starting at 9 a.m., is open to anyone interested in learning about any of the school's undergraduate and graduate programs.