Crime Scene Chemistry course is science with a twist

November 03, 2009

Junior Theatre Arts-Communication major Jennifer Lichtman gently squeezed the dropper, counting each drop of the chemical potassium thiocyanate as it landed in the solution in the bottom of the test tube. When the clear water turned a dark opaque brown, Lichtman and lab partners sophomore Kellie Jones and junior Rachel Smith had their answer. There was iron in the water.

After a recent lecture on poisons, students taking Crime Scene Chemistry had convened in the lab to look for heavy metals. They’d just learned about how seven different types of poisons caused victims’ deaths, and now they were on the case – searching clear water samples for the metals lead, copper, iron, calcium.

“This class seemed really interesting and it is,” said Jones, who hasn’t yet decided on a major. “It makes me want to take more science courses.”

Jennifer Lichtman with lab partners Kellie Jones (left) and Rachel Smith examining the results of an analysis during Crime Scene Chemistry lab.

The recently renamed course – which until this semester was titled General, Organic and Biochemistry, and was geared toward Exercise Science majors – is aimed at the College’s growing number of Forensic Science minors. It is also designed to help meet a McDaniel Plan requirement that students take more mini-labs.

“We retooled the course toward the majority of people taking it,” said Marilyn Smith, Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry. “Most are Forensic Science minors.”

The key components of the old course remain intact, Smith said.

Students still learn general chemistry concepts such as the structure and bonding of molecules, organic chemistry and biochemistry. But with a twist, such as learning how drugs are metabolized and how quickly they clear from the human body.

Smith said all the mini-labs are forensics-oriented and include topics such as examining different types of poisons, identifying drug molecules, and basic chemical structures.

The course texts are “Chemistry for Changing Times” and “Molecules of Murder.”

“It’s real-life oriented,” Smith said. “I hope they feel they aren’t just learning for the sake of learning – which has its place – but also that they find real-world applications for what they are learning.”

Among the students gathered around the Atomic Absorption Spectrometer in Eaton Hall for the mini-lab are Sociology, History, French, English, Communication and Theatre Arts majors.

The course doesn’t usually attract the serious science majors but it offers non-science majors a sampling of lab work, a basic knowledge of chemistry and a chance to understand what the agents on the CSI television series are really talking about.

A Sociology major who hopes to be a Baltimore City police officer someday, senior Ha Chon finds the class to be particularly interesting since Professor Marilyn Smith makes vivid connections between the chemistry and its real-life – or true-crime as the case may be – applications.

“Who knows? I may end up in the crime lab,” Chon said. “I aim toward where I want to go and see what happens.”

Teaching assistant and sophomore Biochemistry major Tiara Tirasawasdichai explains to senior Ha Chon how an Atomic Absorption Spectrometer helps analyze a clear liquid solution.