It’s like a scene out of a TV show. The call came into the office and in moments a team of people went running. A skeleton was discovered in the woods, with pieces of a spine in one area and a skull found in another. Back in the lab, an investigator cuts into a body to examine the liver, looking for signs of alcoholism or something far more mysterious.
As a forensics student at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Madyson VanHyll was looking forward to her senior year – when she, too, could join the ranks of interns who worked with the Dauphin County Coroner’s Office.
“I got a little sucked into the ‘CSI’-type shows when I was younger, and that had a bit of an influence on me,” VanHyll said. “I just didn’t know there was an education like that until I found HU.”
The forensics program, a concentration under integrative sciences, was designed to give students better career opportunities by combining a science background with real case application that can be used in a variety of fields, said Graham Hetrick, Dauphin County Coroner and a member of the corporate faculty at Harrisburg University.
“A solid training in science gives students a much more in-depth look at a career in forensics,” Hetrick said. “Rather than taking many of the generalized classes you find in criminal justice programs, our students are getting hands-on experience that allows them to think, explore and experiment.”
Many of those who graduated from the program have gone on to do research, teach at another college or university, or work in a medical examiners’ office. By completing the circle of forensics – essentially applying science to the law – Harrisburg University graduates enter the workforce with experience others wait years to achieve.
Building a program based on experience
The Dauphin County Forensic Science Center comes alive with ideas. Students study the behavior of beetles as part of a study related to a homicide case. They huddle around microscopes and test tubes, taking notes on chemical reactions. In another area, a student takes a step back to examine blood-splatter analysis.
“We can do things here that you can’t do in a university setting,” Hetrick said. “Most school labs can’t cater to the kind of work a forensic science student needs to compete. But, in this lab, they can do exactly what they would do in the real world.”
When Hetrick became a corporate faculty professor at HU about 10 years ago, he was primarily working with students from West Virginia University. Now, the Dauphin County Forensic Science Center caters to interns from up to five different schools, including Harrisburg University.
The possibility of an internship at the Dauphin County Coroner’s Office gives students the ability to not just be taught in a classroom, but to learn to do it themselves.
Each year, students in the medical death investigation class bury a pig and dig it up as a mock crime scene to get practical field experience. Classroom lectures are paired with hands-on experiences to allow for growth and development of ideas.
“The most life changing experience is being in the coroner’s office,” he said. “Not only does it give students an experience that prepares them for the field, but it lets them know if they’re headed in the right professional direction. If it isn’t for them, this experience will tell them.”
A life-changing opportunity
For Karen Shaputis Jones, who grew up near Carlisle, a career in forensics meant the chance to always learn something new. Her professional career started in the operating room at Hershey Medical Center, where she worked as a surgical techmologist for the orthopedic team. But it was when she had the opportunity to help in general trauma – practicing bullet removal, collecting evidence and documenting sex cases – that she felt a calling to something else.
Harrisburg University’s forensics program offered an enticing bachelor’s degree program that was close enough to home, she said. The chance to learn outside of the classroom and to work alongside professionals in the field also ensured she’d never get bored. By the time she started the program in 2005, she was hooked.
“It was eye-opening to get to go to the crime scenes and see things from the beginning versus being on the medical side and seeing it at the end,” Jones said. “It helped me decide that this was a career I wanted for the rest of my life.”
Jones’ experience included working with the Dauphin County Forensic Pathologist and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Eventually, she found herself teaching at North Carolina’s Miller-Motte College.
For students still completing their education, stories like Jones’ are an inspiration to what a career in forensics can offer. As Madyson VanHyll finishes her internship with the Dauphin County Coroner’s Office, she believes she’s gone through one of the best internships in the area.
“I was surprised with how much opportunity I was given to participate,” VanHyll said. “I knew I wouldn’t just be standing around, waiting for something to do. But I never knew I’d be so involved in autopsies, crime scenes or general investigations.”
Having Hetrick as a professor and then working alongside him in the office helped string VanHyll’s entire education together, she said. The internship also affirmed that she wanted to stick with a forensics career rather than a lab job, which she considered after completing an internship in the core lab at WellSpan’s York Hospital.
“It was a great internship, but I learned that lab work wasn’t for me,” she said. “I told people, ‘When you work in the lab you wake up knowing what you’re going to do every day. With death investigations, you have no idea what your day will be like.’ That’s the type of career that I want.”
An edge above the rest
The competitive world of applied sciences can be a tough career to breech. Without the components of Harrisburg University’s program, Hetrick said, it can be nearly impossible to make an impression on those who are hiring.
“Employers like to see people who have actual work experience,” he said. “Academic experience alone just doesn’t cut it. It takes hard work, guidance from a professional and real world knowledge that helps these students stand apart. When they leave here they’re going on to greater things because they had the foundation that set them up for greatness.”