HUNTINGTON — For the first time in more than 20 years, the Marshall University Forensic Science graduate program is housed at one location, which professors believe will allow the nationally known program to expand on its class size, courses and research.
The Marshall Forensic Science Center, located on Forensic Science Drive at the corner of 14th Street and Charleston Avenue in Huntington, houses the school's graduate forensic science program, as well as the state of West Virginia's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) laboratory facility.
It's rare to find a forensic program located in the same building as a fully functioning DNA laboratory. Although the two serve under the same name as Marshall University, they are completely separate entities.
The Marshall University Forensic Science Graduate Program was created in 1994 through collaboration with the School of Medicine and West Virginia State Police, with its first class graduating in 1997.
It's a two-year academic program with students earning a Master of Science in Forensic Science. Students can select emphases of DNA Analysis, Forensic Chemistry, Digital Forensic and Crime Scene Investigation.
While the school's main site has been at the Forensic Science Drive location since 2004, it did not fully come together until this semester with the soon-to-be completed chemistry laboratory.
The new larger laboratory is expected to push the program into new depths, including more available lab time for research and courses, combined with the eradication of a commute to different facilities needed to teach, learn and research. For the program's leaders, the larger lab space also means more students joining the program.
The MUFS graduate program has been a Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) accredited program since 2005.
It's also the first to be accredited for Digital Forensics. Catherine Rushton said the program tries to stay ahead of what they believe will be needed in the future. When they saw the digital era come of age, the digital forensic track was added.
The goal of the forensic science master's degree is to send graduates to the world who possess the knowledge, skills and abilities sought by crime labs, law enforcement and private entities. Marshall has fulfilled that goal well, Rushton said, and is nationally known, with its students finding work easily in the field upon graduation. The students and professors often present their research at national conferences, garnering positive reviews.
Two of its students even traveled Dubai recently, as part of a work study, where they taught the overseas lab the technology of forensic science in the United States.
Since its first-graduating class, the program's success has been a combination of the works of program founder Dr. Terry Fenger and its graduates. The program's professors and its leader are all graduates of the program.
Other graduates find ways to be involved by offering internships or jobs from across the country to the program's current students. Students already have connections they might not be aware of.
It's much like a sorority, Rushton said.
The students in each class of the two-year program stay with each other from beginning to end, Rushton said.
"This is where they are supposed to be forming those relationships, those professional networks they need in the future endeavors. So we try to foster a non-competitive (environment)."
Despite its success, the school has often had to share space around the Marshall campus, and as far as the veterans' hospital in Wayne County, to have proper lab for its chemistry-based studies.
However, after years of preparation and brainstorming, the entire program is calling the Forensic Center Drive home, which Rushton says will be huge for the program's future.
Currently the program can house up to 20 students - 15 are expected to graduate in May - but with the new lab, next year the capacity is 25 with the possibility of the size growing in the years to come.
Out with the old
Now the director of the program, Rushton has seen the program grow since its inception after graduating in the first class.
"I've seen it in the both directions, as a student and teacher," she said. "I remember as a student we took our classes in this conference room and we sat on couches and around a conference room with Dr. Fenger and that's kind of how it was of the first few years."
Rushton said as the program grew there wasn't a lot of space to share with the biomedical sciences and medical school program.
They moved to the veterans hospital, but after the completion of the CODIS lab, a new building was built next door.
"When you think about it, when you are that far apart, there's the drive time," she said. "If you had to drive out there to do something or teach, it was difficult."
The lab had remained in a rented space across Hal Greer, about a five minute drive, until this semester.
According to professor Dr. Lauren Waugh, the idea for the lab, which is fully dedicated to student work, started in December 2016, but the process was delayed after the lack of ductwork needed for the chemical fume hood was discovered.
A year later, the final touches are being put on it.
Light at the end of the tunnel
In February, the Forensic Chemistry lab was still covered in plastic to protect it from dust as workers continue to install stainless steel ductwork and switches for the hoods, but the students don't mind, Waugh said.
"For labs we've actually just been lifting it and will roll it up during lab time and then back down. I've had maintenance put up a curtain," she said.
With the professors' offices, classrooms and research labs all a stone's throw away for the first time, they all said they didn't mind waiting for the finishing touches.
The lab was the last piece of the puzzle and has put the program in one place for the first time since its creation, Waugh said.
"My research has been down for nearly a year between the move and construction," she said. "So after that year-long process, we can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and the tunnel is getting really short. To see something that has been in the works for so long coming to fruition, that in a couple weeks I will have what we have been working on for so long, yeah. We are geeking out a bit."
Waugh said the lab space creates a lot of possibilities for the program.
The lab has gone from having two one-sided work benches pressed against walls to five double-sided work benches, with a sixth dedicated to instrumentation.
"That is all teaching space and now I have a dedicated, separate research area," she said. "Now my graduate assistant students can be working on my research projects while I'm in lab. I don't have to worry about having to try to stagger labs with the research time."
The chemistry fume hood space also allows for more students. The school doubled its former total hood length of about 8 to 10 feet to 18 feet, she said.
"Basically what a hood does is anytime students are working with any kind of (item) that presents any type of issue with inhalation, they need to be working on it in a safe environment," she said. "A lot of the spot tests and other tests we do to identify drugs, we use acids and bases and solvents."
This allows about eight students to work at a time, which will also reduce the amount of lab sections needed to fit all the students in, she said.
"It allows me and the program to put more students in a lab section so that we open more time in the schedule, she said. "By having times open in the schedule that will allow me to develop a new lab course that will expand our offerings."
This will result in more open time in the schedule for research or an expansion of the type of labs offered.
"I can potentially get my dream of having another lab dedicated to toxicology and drug analysis, which is what my main background is in," she said.
The lab is also compliant with the American Disability Act, with a specialized hood space lower to the ground with an open space below that will allow wheelchair bound students to work.
Waugh said it has been nice to see the graduate assistants work together toward the goal of the new lab. It's something she hopes the students can come back to appreciate one day.
"My graduate assistants who work in my lab are very invested in this because they packed up the lab, moved it all over here," she said. "They've seen the hoods go in and they are going to get to see the change start to finish before they graduate."
Jesal Patel, a second-year student, has been on the front line of transferring the lab to its new location. Patel was one of several students who helped transfer the most recent lab, located at the Fairfield Medical Building, to its new location.
"I think seeing it now, it's worth it, but it was a lot of work to move everything," she said.
Instead of using her time in between working and school to drive between locations, Patel can now spend it in the break room to study.
"It's really nice to have it here because we have lab and a couple of us also work in the lab," she said. "So it's nice ... because after class we can just come on up here and not have to drive."
Rushton is excited to see her colleagues' dreams come into view.
"Lauren and (professor Kelly Beatty) were my students and now seeing them be my colleagues is an amazing thing," she said. "So I'm super excited for them. For Lauren to have this up and running and her be able to do what she's been dreaming about, makes me happy."
Waugh is already picking out what courses she could teach with the new lab.
Currently the program offers a trace evidence and general forensic analysis lab where students can work on techniques dealing with drug, fire debris and other type of analysis.
Waugh wants to expand on the toxicology and drug analysis, which is her background.
She pointed to a lot of instruments she has not been able to incorporate into her courses because of the lack of a decent lab size.
One instrument that would have cost $250,000 new, but was donated to the program by the medical examiner's office upon its retirement from their facilities, has been used for strictly research, but with the move, she will be able to incorporate it into her coursework.
Rushton hinted the team had been getting ahead of themselves by planning for the next expansion for the program, but for now, they are just enjoying being under one roof.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.