Columbus Police Department Crime Lab director Austin Shepherd explains how to operate a super glue chamber, pictured behind them, to MSU Biochemistry professor Florencia Meyer. The super glue chamber is a machine forensic scientists use to develop fingerprints on pieces of evidence. Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff
February 18, 2016 10:21:54 AM
On Wednesday, the Columbus Police Department Crime Lab presented Mississippi State University with equipment for the university's forensics program.
Biochemistry professor Florencia Meyer arrived at the Crime Lab in downtown Columbus Wednesday morning to pick up a super glue chamber, a machine used to develop fingerprints on physical evidence. Meyer teaches Intro to Forensic Science and Advanced. She plans to use the super glue chamber in class.
"This will be fantastic," she said. "I'm already planning activities."
The super glue chamber is a long rectangular box which can hold objects as large as a rifle or shotgun, which Crime Lab director Austin Shepherd said is about the biggest item the chamber has ever held. Forensic scientists can operate the chamber to increase or decrease humidity, causing fingerprints to show up on pieces of evidence.
Fingerprints are about 95 percent moisture, Shepherd said. By raising the humidity around a non-porous object, the residue of any fingerprint on the object will rehydrate.
"Then the super glue heats up, turns into a gas and interacts with the moisture in the print that polymerizes the print and the print will turn like a really bright white," he said. "It'll be pretty much permanent."
The super glue fumes are vented out through a built-in filter.
It's a process that works a little better than fingerprint dusting, said Shepherd, though the Crime Lab still uses that technique as well. And while store-bought super glue works, the Crime Lab orders its own glue that contains dye stain. The chamber has processed all kinds of items, from weapons and shell casings to tools used to break in buildings or containers from which money was taken.
The chamber that the Crime Lab gave Mississippi State is about 10 years old. Three months ago, the Crime Lab got a new one, which Shepherd is using it to process a pair of latex gloves from a home burglary.
Giving away the older super glue machine is just one way in which Shepherd wants to foster the relationship the CPD's Crime Lab has with Mississippi State's forensics program. Shepherd previously has spoken to students in the program about what it is like working in a forensics lab. Giving the university real equipment used to solve crimes is just one more way Shepherd wants to prepare the next generation of forensic scientists.
Mississippi State doesn't have a forensics major, Meyer said. Instead students studying biochemistry can get a concentration in forensic science, which can prepare them for a masters program in forensics at another school.
It's not all biochemistry majors taking Meyer's class though. She said students from other majors enjoy Advanced Forensic Science where the students read research articles and talk about ongoing criminal cases. The students in that class use the super glue machine, Meyer said, whereas students in Intro to Forensic Science will simply look at the chamber.
There are currently 26 students in Intro to Forensic Science, which Meyer teaches in the spring. Next fall, she will teach the advanced class.
Students focusing in forensic science can also take classes in computer forensics and forensic entomology, Meyer said. Meanwhile the university also offers criminology courses like Crime and Justice in America and Psychology of Abnormal Behavior.
"Things like that overall round out a really nice concentration," Meyer said. "And of course in the biochemistry department, we have the background of the molecular park like the DNA analysis and things like that, so the students end up with a really nice understanding of the methodologies and the techniques and the principles that you apply when you work in this field."
Forensic science is a growing field with many job openings, Shepherd said. This is partly due to the popularity of crime shows like C.S.I. but courts and juries also want forensic evidence on cases, he said.
"It's evidence that is unbiased," he said. "It just tells the truth. There's no way to sway it one way or the other when you look at it just as a fact."
There weren't many forensic science programs at universities in the United States when Shepherd began his forensic career 15 years ago, but now there are probably hundreds, he said. Still, not many programs have a super glue machine to use.
Shepherd hopes it will encourage students to enter the forensic science field, especially in local departments such as the CPD Crime Lab. Shepherd said he is even hoping to hire two new trainees for the Crime Lab in the next few months. Preferably, they want someone local, he added -- a student from MSU or Mississippi University for Women.
They don't necessarily need to have experience, Shepherd said, just a degree in some kind of chemistry.
"And (they must be) willing to buy into the community," he added. "That's what we're here for -- (to) make it a better place."
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