Today@Sam Article

SHSU Offers First Multi-Disciplinary Ph.D. Program Forensic Science

Feb. 13, 2015
SHSU Media Contact: Beth Kuhles

Sam Houston State University launched the nation’s first interdisciplinary doctoral degree in forensic science to meet the growing needs of public and private crime labs and to train faculty for higher education programs in the expanding field.

“The College of Criminal Justice is one of the leading colleges in the country, and the new degree in forensic science is a natural extension of our master’s degree,” said Sarah Kerrigan, chair of the department of forensic science at SHSU. “The Ph.D. in forensic science will provide students with the critical-thinking ability, problem-solving skills and advanced discipline-specific knowledge to allow them to assume leadership positions within forensic organizations.”

The new degree program will advance career options for those who intend to pursue employment in higher education or forensic services for law enforcement, medical examiner offices, correctional facilities, attorneys and the intelligence community. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the field is growing at a rate of 19 percent annually, with the largest demands in the areas of DNA, serology, firearms and tool marks, and trace evidence.

The program, which will encompass many specialties within the field, will require 86 hours of credit beyond the bachelor’s degree, including 45 hours in core courses, 15 hours of dissertation research and 26 hours of electives in a chosen area of study.

SHSU is one of only 20 programs nationwide that offer an accredited master’s program in forensic science. It was the first in Texas to be accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission, which maintains and enhances the quality of forensic science education programs through a formal evaluation and recognition program.

The new doctoral program will work interdepartmentally and make use of the numerous academic-industrial partnerships and collaborations at SHSU.

The faculty in the department of forensic science represent a broad spectrum of expertise.

Kerrigan, a forensic toxicologist and former state laboratory director, is a member of the Forensic Science Standards Board, the governing body of the Organization of Scientific Area Committees—a joint effort of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and U.S. Department of Justice—charged with developing and improving standards across all the forensic disciplines.

The department also includes David Gangitano and Sheree Hughes-Stamm, who specialize in DNA; Chi-Chung Jorn Yu, who focuses on physical evidence; Jasmine Drake, who investigates controlled substances, and Joan Bytheway and Hughes-Stamm, who have expertise in forensic anthropology.

The college recently launched the Institute for Forensic Research, Training, and Innovation that will help deliver much-needed training to the forensic community and serve as a research partner to public and private forensic agencies for the purposes of academic-industrial collaborations.

While the program is designed to meet the growing demands in the field, it also will help address critical backlogs and uncertainty over the science in the discipline.

According to the most recent Census of Publicly Funded Crime Laboratories from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, government crime lab employed 13,100 personnel and received 4 million requests for service in 2009. However, the report found that there was a backlog of more than 1 million requests for forensic service, and nine out of 10 requests remained unprocessed by the end of the year.

“The shortage of resources and qualified personnel to perform critical functions in support of criminal and death investigations has profound public safety and criminal justice consequences,” Kerrigan said.

Prompted by this backlog of cases and questions about the scientific reliability of forensics, Congress directed the National Academy of Science to examine the issues.

In a 2009 report entitled “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward,” the NAS recommended an overhaul of the system to ensure the reliability of work, establish enforceable standards and promote best practices with consistent applications. The committee recommended a new government entity to develop standards.

Kerrigan is one of 17 representatives from academia and industry to serve on that panel.

To be eligible for the new Ph.D. program, students must hold a bachelor’s degree or higher from an accredited college in chemistry, biology, forensics or natural science. Students who previously graduated from the SHSU Master of Science in forensic science program may incorporate up to 44 hours toward the degree, while those transferring from other graduate programs may transfer 15 credit hours.

For more information, contact the department of forensic science at 936.294.4270.

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