An Interview with Marilyn Miller
“The study of forensic science is not the dramatic process shown on TV programs like CSI. It actually requires a very firm foundation of scientific knowledge and practice.”
Marilyn Miller is an associate professor of forensic science at Virginia Commonwealth University. She specializes in forensic chemistry and scientific crime scene investigation. Professor Miller received her Doctor of Education in Post-Secondary Educational Leadership from Johnson and Wales University in 2003. She also holds a Master of Science in Forensic Chemistry from University of Pittsburgh and a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from Florida Southern College.
Doctor Miller worked as a forensic chemist and a supervisor at crime scenes before she began her teaching career at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her current research focuses on how to make crime scene investigations more scientifically rigorous.
In your own words, what is forensic science?
Forensic science is the application of the physical sciences in the analysis of evidence in criminal investigations. It is a combination of theoretical scientific research and applied scientific practices, both of which form important parts of the criminal justice system. The study of forensic science is not the dramatic process shown on TV programs like CSI. It actually requires a very firm foundation of scientific knowledge and practice.
What classes do you teach in forensic science?
Currently, I teach 4 courses, which include a survey of forensic science, a scientific crime scene investigation course, a forensic chemistry course, and a senior seminar. The survey course is our entry-level course and covers all aspects of forensic science, from forensic medicine to forensic anthropology. It also covers analysis of trace evidence, chemical evidence and biological evidence.
The scientific crime scene investigation course teaches students how to apply the scientific method to the investigation of crime scenes and physical evidence found at those scenes. My course in forensic chemistry, on the other hand, covers the laboratory analysis of all evidence considered chemical, such as fire debris, controlled substances, paints, polymers, fibers and gunshot residue.
Finally, the senior seminar is required for all forensic science students at Virginia Commonwealth University in order to graduate. The seminar examines professional organizations, court testimony, ethics, quality assurance and quality control.
How long have you been a professor of forensic science?
I have been a professor for over 16 years. I have spent 7 of those years teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University, and I was a professor at University of New Haven in Connecticut before that. I began my teaching career after working for 14 years as a forensic scientist and primary responder to crime scenes, both processing the scenes and taking evidence to labs for analysis.
If a student said to you, “I’m interested in studying forensic science,” what would your response be?
Forensic science is a nice way to combine both theoretical science and practical applied science. Forensic science jobs allow students to apply science in a very practical manner, something attractive to many science majors. Theoretical research science is preferred by certain students whereas practical applied science is preferred by others, but forensic science unites both areas in 1 field.
In your opinion, what are the biggest hurdles or difficulties that students entering a forensic science program have?
In my opinion, students of forensic science face difficulty with time management. Students may be taking 2 or 3 laboratory courses requiring attendance at lectures and writing lab reports. The combination of lecture attendance and writing can be very time consuming. Forensic science majors need to learn time management very early in their collegiate careers. College is the last fun place before students enter the adult world, and sometimes they forget that they are supposed to be getting an education before moving on.
I also think that most college students are sleep-deprived. Going to bed early is essential. Students cannot stay up until 3:00 a.m. and attend an 8:00 a.m. class. Sleep deprivation is a huge problem, especially for students who take 15 to 18 credit hours a term.
In addition, students sometimes develop the misconception that forensic science is an easy process. Forensic scientists on TV go to crime scenes, gather evidence and then rapidly get results. In reality, the process is not so easy. Students quickly learn that forensic science requires the deep study of foundational natural or physical science. They have to learn chemistry in order to know how to analyze a piece of trace evidence. The upper-level chemistry and biology courses are also difficult. Sometimes the reality of learning hard science comes as a shock to students with preconceived notions about forensic science.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a forensic scientist and what traits would hinder success?
Forensic science students need to be detail-oriented and meticulous. Students cannot go into a laboratory and analyze evidence if they are sloppy in their work. Good laboratory techniques and laboratory skills are essential in courses which require attention to minute detail.
No personality trait will disqualify students from succeeding in forensic science, except laziness. People of all personality types can be forensic scientists if they apply themselves.
What courses in forensic science are most important for a student to take?
Foundational courses in the natural sciences and mathematics are the most important courses that forensic science students can take. The collection and analysis of evidence cannot be done effectively without a firm knowledge of chemistry and physics. In addition, biology courses are very important for students who want to pursue DNA analysis. Math courses like calculus are also important because math is used in most forensic science subjects.
What skills can students expect to gain while studying forensic science?
A forensic science program will teach critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills and the ability to work independently and in groups. These skills are also acquired in the pursuit of any major.
Can you give a few study tips that would help a forensic science student succeed?
If you want to perform well in a forensic science program, staying on top of your work is extremely important. Keep up with your classes every day, because every class is built upon what was learned during the previous class. You cannot skim over some things and catch up later.
For a student not interested in an academic career, what is the optimal level of education needed for a job in the field of forensic science?
A bachelors degree in forensic science will allow students to do entry-level work in forensic laboratories as well as take advanced courses. However, nearly all practice and research in the field of forensic science requires an advanced degree. Only law enforcement officials can occasionally do related fieldwork without a degree.
Many of the graduates of our bachelors in forensic science program go on to professional universities, medical schools or dental schools. Others go on to graduate programs in biology or chemistry.
What is the job outlook for students with degrees in forensic science?
Forensic scientists who work for the government can expect relatively steady job prospects. But government jobs are also subject to budget cuts at all levels, and securing a job in the field is difficult right now. In terms of academic employment, public funding is hard to come by. At Virginia Commonwealth University, the university faculty and staff have not had raises in 4 years, and only a few new faculty are being hired.
This is similar to what is happening in forensic laboratories. Labs have occasional openings, but the competition is stiff. Students with bachelors degrees qualify for entry-level positions in forensic laboratories at the federal, state, county or municipal levels. There are privately-owned forensic laboratories which will accept recent graduates as well. Entry-level lab work is a popular choice for students after graduation. Some of our students become what are called medical or legal investigators. They work for medical examiners and analyze death scenes, but not from a criminal point of view. They consult mostly to determine the cause of death. Some of our students get involved in skeletal remain analysis, and some go on to work in labs that restore paintings and furniture.
Any hands-on laboratory experience gained while studying will help students who are entering the job market, whether the students become research assistants or interns in a forensic laboratory. Internships in environments with forensic facilities, like the Smithsonian museum, are also beneficial. Internships give students experience outside of the academic realm where they learn to think critically and work on their own to solve problems.
How can undergraduate students prepare themselves if they are interested in studying forensic science at the graduate level?
All of the forensic science graduate programs in the United States require students to have an undergraduate degree in a natural science, but not necessarily in forensic science. Bachelors degrees in physics, chemistry, biology or related fields are acceptable. We require the GRE test, and laboratory experience will be very helpful for prospective graduate students.
When selecting graduate schools, students should check for accreditation. The Forensic Science Educational Programs Accreditation Commission, or FEPAC, evaluates and accredits forensic science programs across the country. FEPAC accreditation means that the university has met the standards of professionalism and knowledge that the field requires. However, not every school that has a graduate program in forensic science is FEPAC accredited.
What advice do you have for students interested in studying forensic science?
Forensic science students cannot be successful unless they are very comfortable with the study of physical sciences. Also, I would be remiss if I did not also warn prospective students to behave themselves. Forensic scientists and the people who they work with are a conservative crowd. Forensic laboratories do not hire people with criminal records or who associate with criminals.