May 26, 2015
By Greg Peters
Fans of the television program CSI: Crime Scene Investigation tune in every week to get their fill of crime labs stocked with exotic high-tech equipment projecting holographic images of America's most wanted while super sleuths catch bad guys in less than an hour.
In Kansas City, real life crime scene investigations play out every day on a very different stage. The Kansas City Crime Lab is housed in a modest brick and glass building on Troost Avenue. No lights, no camera, but plenty of action provided by a crew of dedicated scientists and criminalists.
While "CSI: Kansas City" lacks the glitz and glamour of its television counterpart, the work of real world crime solving is filled with dedicated individuals who pay painstaking attention to detail. Since 2002, students from the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the University of Kansas Medical Center have worked with crime lab employees during five-week practicums as they test whether a career in crime solving is for them.
Seniors Emily Wiesen and Kate Vaupel took their turns during the spring semester in the crime lab under the watchful eye of Chief Criminalist Scott Hummel, who directs the lab's forensic biology section. Because this is a unique opportunity for students, Eric Elsinghorst, chair of KU's Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, goes to great lengths to make sure his students are a good fit.
"Having an affiliation agreement with a crime lab is a rare thing," said Elsinghorst. "I don't want to ask the crime Lab personnel to dedicate their effort to a student who isn't interested in forensics as a career."
"When I applied to KU, I knew they had a rotation at the Kansas City lab and knew it was right for me," said Wiesen, a Shawnee Mission West graduate who learned about the crime lab from her father who went through Johnson County's Citizen's Academy. "He thought the crime lab looked like something I would enjoy."
Clinical lab sciences meet CSI
For the uninitiated, clinical lab scientists analyze blood, body tissues and other fluids, providing essential information needed to diagnose and treat patients. KU's clinical laboratory sciences program has two concentration options: clinical or molecular biotechnology. Students in the two tracks complete the same coursework during their first three semesters, but in their final semester, molecular biotechnology-track students take coursework specific to molecular biotechnology.
In the crime lab, clinical laboratory sciences students purify and quantify DNA and analyze it for the genetic fingerprints that distinguish one person from another. The student also gains hands-on experience in the use, calibration and maintenance of molecular equipment and how to analyze and interpret testing results.
"The primary goal is to expose students to actual real life day-to-day operations of a crime lab and specifically a forensic DNA analyst - in contrast to what is portrayed in the media," Hummel said.
The students also work on a project focusing on a certain issue or problem facing the lab staff. For Vaupel, the project is making sure the standards for the new expert system, which is software that provides portions of the technical reviewing process for DNA samples. Wiesen worked on validating the Leeds Spectral Device - a machine used as an alternate light source when detecting and imaging bodily fluids - to determine whether it will work as a screening tool for evidence.
"You never know how much you're going to be expected to know when you're working in a real lab," said Vaupel, who is completing both the clinical and molecular biotechnology concentrations for her bachelor's degree. "There's that fear that you're not prepared or you're not going to know how to execute a project. Eric did an excellent job of preparing us, and the sites we go to are understanding and supportive."
The real CSI: Kansas City
On a rainy Thursday, Vaupel was seated at a research bench in a lab under flickering fluorescent office lights. This day's mission was to handle buccal samples of mouth cells from employees and their relatives for DNA processing. Not the most interesting task, but all part of the lab's mission.
"No two cases are the same," Vaupel said. "It's like a puzzle, and you have to investigate and troubleshoot your piece of the puzzle to complete the picture."
As part of her coursework, Vaupel will move on to a laboratory at Children's Mercy Hospital after completing her time at the crime lab. Vaupel will not complete her coursework until October when she has finished her clinical concentration practicum rotations.
Is a CLS degree enough for a CSI?
So is having a clinical laboratory sciences degree enough to land a graduate a job in a crime lab? Elsinghorst said that graduates of clinical laboratory sciences molecular biotechnology track have obtained jobs in crime labs, but added that most scientists who work in the DNA section of crime labs have a master's degree in forensics, criminalistics or some other related discipline.
"Everyone knows that various types of crime occur daily but never think about the evidence that the crime scene investigators take to be processed," Wiesen said. "Being able to physically see the evidence and watch as the laboratory processes it was definitely an eye-opening experience to how important their jobs and expertise are."
For Vaupel, working in clinical lab science took on a more personal note recently when her 9-year-old sister started showing an interest in her older sibling's studies. Vaupel bought her sister a beginner's microscope for Christmas, and they have been sharing their love of science ever since.
"I like being someone my little sister can look up to," she said. "There's not a lot of pressure to 'set an example' when pursuing something that interests you is the example."