CSI: Westminster

July 28, 2009

Squinting his eyes in the darkened laboratory, Wesley Weicht leaned into the microscope and adjusted the focus as he searched for distinctive features among several hair samples tied to a group of suspects. One, he knew, would match a separate sample that might help catch a criminal.

Across the table, one of Weicht’s peers, Sal DiDino, breaks Weicht’s concentration when he shouts out, “The perp has very thin medulla.”

As it turns out, one sample has very thick medulla, a hair strand’s equivalent of a backbone. Another sample is a dark string of hair with a dotted, or sporadic, medulla. And on it goes.

For Weicht and DiDino, this classroom exercise is every bit like searching for a needle in a haystack – and it’s a task they envision doing someday through a career in forensic science.

They were among dozens of high school students and recent graduates who flocked to McDaniel’s campus during two one-week sessions for this year’s Forensic Science Camp, now in its fourth year.

The hair sample analysis exercise before Weicht – who plans, with twin brother Jake, to attend McDaniel in the fall and major in math and physics – and DiDino included samples from the students, not actual suspects. And there was no actual crime to solve. But they approached the experiment with an intensity of curiosity and persistence as though it was the real thing.

Brian Wladkowski, associate professor of Chemistry, and Jeff Marx, professor of Physics, directed the camp, which is an outgrowth of the college’s recognition that forensic science is a growing field of interest.

Students enrolled at McDaniel may pursue a minor in forensic science, which requires the completion of 28 credit hours in courses ranging from Criminology to Practical Applications in Law Enforcement to Human Biology.

Physics Professor Jeff Marx

Marx said that with the increasing popularity of television shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the camp gives the college a prime opportunity to expose younger students, mostly recent high school graduates, to an exciting career path.

“The idea is to give these students a broad introduction to forensic science and expose them to college-level science,” Marx said in a recent interview as students peered over hair samples. “This gives them real-life information about what forensic science is about.”

Through discussions, laboratories and field trips, the camp exposed students to college-level material on topics such as crime scene investigation, blood analysis, fingerprinting, DNA analysis and ballistics analysis.

Becky Searight, a rising senior at Cardinal Dougherty High School in Philadelphia, said she had been searching for a forensic science summer program when she discovered McDaniel’s.

“I’ve always been interested in the detective work and the science part,” said Searight, who meticulously jotted down distinguishing details during the hair analysis exercise.

DiDino, a rising senior at Delaware Valley High School in Dingman’s Ferry, Pa., said the most intriguing experience of the camp for him was the group’s trip to a shooting range, where each student fired off bullets to produce the shells that they would use to conduct ballistic analysis in the lab.

“I didn’t think this camp would be so much fun,” DiDino said. “I thought it would be a lot more serious. It’s been great.”

He added that the fingerprinting analysis was undoubtedly the most challenging assignment for him. For this exercise, the campers fingerprinted each other and then worked to match up the samples. He said he repeatedly applied too much of the dusting compound, or not enough.

“Dusting for fingerprints is much harder than it looks on TV,” he said.