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Director leading MU's forensic science department forward

Feb. 25, 2010 @ 11:52 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Those who work within Marshall University's Forensic Science program like to say it's the best-kept secret in Huntington.

And when you sit down with Terry Fenger, the director of the Forensic Science Center, it doesn't take long to realize those people are right.

The program accepted its first class of students in 1995, and it has come far under Fenger's direction.

What started as a master's degree program in forensic science now includes a crime scene investigation house, a working DNA laboratory and training facilities that have drawn law enforcement professionals from around the country.

This past school year, the new three-story Forensic Science Center Annex Building opened next to the original one-story complex that used to be the locker rooms at the old Fairfield Stadium.

The building includes state-of-the-art labs with equipment that isn't even on the market, providing students chance to train on the latest technology. There's also more classroom space, which Fenger hopes will one day be filled with students. Currently, he said the program is at about 45 percent capacity, enrolling an average of 17 students each year.

A new digital forensics program also is catching on after some high-tech equipment was purchased and unveiled last fall.

"The students in this program are highly skilled and highly educated," Fenger said. "There's nothing like it in the state."

The numbers back it up. Students who participated in a new national test to rank forensic science programs were at the top of the list two out of three years. But Fenger doesn't take all the credit for the program's growth and success.

He gives a lot to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., for securing funding in the early 1990s to start the program. He also points to local legislators, including Sens. Bob Plymale and Evan Jenkins, for helping get state funds as well.

But Fenger's expertise in DNA analysis is what brought him to Huntington in 1979 and made him the best person to lead the Forensic Science Center during its first 16 years, university officials say.

Fenger grew up in Illinois, north of Chicago. He earned his doctorate from Southern Illinois University and worked for three years at the Louisiana State Medical Center.

In 1979, he came to Huntington to teach at the new Marshall medical school. For the next 13 years, he taught virology and conducted research related to DNA of virus cells.

Around 1992, he was approached by the West Virginia State Police to teach forensic science techniques in Charleston. For two years, he provided training to state troopers and worked to get approval from the former higher education board to bring a master's program to Marshall.

Before the first class was admitted in 1995, the state authorized Marshall to do the DNA testing for convicted offenders in order to create an offender database. That allowed students who graduated from the program to move right into a paid position. He estimates that 90 percent of those working in the lab now graduated from the program.

The working lab doesn't just work with West Virginia law enforcement. Fenger said DNA testing takes place for agencies in Florida, South Carolina and California. Their work has even led to several convictions.

As well as things have gone, he still has aspirations for more. The third floor of the annex building is just shell space. They're trying to secure grants, state or federal funding of about $1.1 million to finish it and move one last piece of the program in, so everything will be in one location.

He'd also like to see more local students enroll in the master's program, which can accommodate 40 new students each year. Fenger said 75 percent of the 17 that are routinely admitted come from out of state. He hopes that new crime scene investigation camps will increase visibility for high school students and adults throughout the Tri-State.

This week, Fenger is attending the 62nd annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in Seattle. More than 1,000 forensic scientists from around the world regularly attend. He has about 20 students with him, and they will give five different presentations on research projects. It also give the students a chance to network, attend job fairs and meet students from other academic programs.



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