November 23, 2015

Practicing forensic scientist teaches students about fingerprinting, blood spatter and good science

On TV shows, crime-scene technicians brush black powder on a doorknob to reveal a fingerprint. Moments later, the same technician has found a matching print on a database, and gruff, gun-toting cops leave to question their prime suspect.

Ask Merissa Delgado how realistic that is. “It’s a lot harder than that,” she confessed. Delgado, a student in ADMJ 221, Forensic Science and Crime Scene Investigation, took the class because she’s interested in a career in the justice system.

In fact, a lot of students, fueled by the popularity of television shows like “CSI,” “NCIS,” and “Forensic Files” have signed up for the class because they want the answer to, “How do they do that?” and “How can I do that, too?”

Taught by forensic professional

The class is taught by a “real” forensic scientist. Kelly McGill Carroll has been teaching ADMJ 221 at JCCC for eight years. It’s an evening class because McGill Carroll spends her days at the Johnson County Criminalistics Lab, the crime lab of the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.

McGill Carroll specializes in DNA identification at the lab. She has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in forensic science.

On a recent evening, students dusted for fingerprints. The whiteboard and students’ cellphone screens proved to be prime hunting grounds for the loops, whorls and arches that comprise a fingerprint type. Getting prints off soda bottles, doorknobs or other rounded surfaces proved more difficult.

“It’s definitely not how TV shows it to be,” said student Dan Jermolenko. He and partner Lauren Houston worked to lift prints from the classroom door with mixed results. The ones from the window were stellar; the ones around the handle (which would probably be the most important in a real criminal case) were smudged.

“I can definitely see where this would take practice,” Houston said.

Hands-on practice makes it fun

McGill Carroll tries to get the students as much hands-on “lab work” to each night’s class as she can, usually the last hour of a three-hour class.

“The labs here are really fun,” said Megan Duffy, a student and “Forensic Files” fan. “This is probably one of my favorite classes for that reason.”

Fingerprinting was Duffy’s favorite lab, “but blood spatter was fun, too,” she said. She described how they learned about force and direction of blood in an attack – in the only class on campus where saying such words with enthusiasm doesn’t seem the least bit creepy.

Word’s gotten out that the class is pretty cool. McGill Carroll used to teach the class only once a year, in the spring, and now the class fills both spring and fall.

Science mixed with patience

As McGill Caroll makes the rounds between tables, she helps students get that fragile finger pattern on clean white paper. “I think the hardest part is the tape,” Delgado calls out, and a chorus of students agree with her. If the technician mangles the tape in any way, the fingerprint is no longer useful. It’s a cautious coaxing of powder to paper. The best make it look easy, while the rest – well, the rest will blow black powder out of their noses for a few days.

McGill Caroll said she loves teaching ADMJ 221. “Some of the students are into science, some law. Others want to be police officers or work for the justice system,” she said.

She tells all of them, first and foremost, to be a good scientist. “I like to pique their interest, but I like to dispel some of the myths that television perpetuates.”

For more information on classes offered by the administration of justice department, check online or contact Kay King, associate professor and chair of administration of justice, at 913-469-8500 ext. 4704.

For information on policing as a profession, review the Johnson County Regional Police Academy information online. The academy is located on the western side of JCCC’s campus.