UB to get modern forensic science lab

$2 million grant OK'd for new facility


When students of forensic science at the University of Baltimore do laboratory work, they wait until technicians from the city's crime lab leave for the night. The school's lab equipment is so limited that all of it can be stored in one closet.

But forensic science education at the downtown university is set to undergo a major transformation, with a laboratory expansion and upgrade from a $2 million grant approved by Congress last month.

There is no completion date for the project, which is still being planned. It will have the latest technology and instrumentation, making it commensurate with police department labs around the state, said Jami Grant, the director of the school's forensic studies program.

"That is going to be wonderful," said Shauna Scott, 21, an undergraduate majoring in forensic studies. "The students who come after us, who are going to have their own equipment - we don't really have that at this moment."

The 1,000-square-foot lab will be housed in the university's Academic Center, and planned purchases include microscopes and high-tech equipment used to analyze drugs and trace evidence.

With the equipment, students will concentrate on identifying drug evidence and trace evidence such as hair and fibers. For drug testing, students identify the components of household drugs such as aspirin. The same instruments are used in the city crime lab to investigate arson, drugs and trace evidence such as paint chips.

The lab won't have ballistics testing or fingerprint analysis capabilities. "Undergraduates with guns is somewhat problematic," Grant said.

The undergraduate forensic studies program accepts 50 students per year. The curriculum includes physics, chemistry and biology coursework.

Even when the new laboratory is completed, it won't deprive students of access to the city's crime staff. Four city employees already teach university classes. "Ties to the field will still be there," Grant said. "There is still stuff you can't do in a lab."

Students will continue to take pictures of crime scenes, helping them learn about photography - what to record and then how to interpret crime scenes. "I have a portfolio created of taking pictures at crime scenes," Scott said.

Students aren't allowed to touch or process evidence from real crime scenes. The city intends to donate a house where students can investigate staged crimes.

The new university lab also will serve as a backup for the city in the event of emergencies.

For example, when Tropical Storm Isabel flooded parts of Baltimore in 2003, the lab lost electricity for several days, and full power wasn't restored for a few weeks. Had the university lab been in existence, the city could have resumed testing almost immediately, said Edgar Koch, who runs the Baltimore police crime lab and teaches at the university. With 37,000 drug cases and about a half-million pieces of evidence to process a year, the city can't afford delays, Koch said.

The program is an invaluable recruitment tool for the city's lab and other crime labs. Baltimore has hired three graduates and plans to hire a fourth, Koch said.

"What this does is give us young people who are well-versed in this, so when we bring them in they have a good knowledge of what to do."


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