Scott Bonn, a criminology professor at Drew University and author of Why We Love Serial Killers, writes in his January 8, 2016 article in Time about the public’s fascination with crime shows, and that “the euphoric effect of true crime on human emotions is similar to that of roller coasters or natural disasters.” While the media’s depiction of crime investigations may portray mystery and drama, students in the Forensic Science Internship course at UTM are learning how to be professional and accurate.
The FSC481 internship course, required for all graduates of the forensic science specialist program, requires students to spend at least 200 hours at a forensic agency participating in on-the-job training or job shadowing, assisting with routine tasks, and collaborating with a professional forensic specialist on an original project.
The instructor for the FSC481 course, and lecturer for the forensic science department at UTM, Joel Cahn, is the editor and principal contributor of the forthcoming 2018 book, Comparative Osteological Research. The book is a volume dedicated to the meta-analysis of comparative methods commonly employed in bioarchaeology. Cahn speaks to The Medium about how his experiences and research inform his teaching and what students can gain from the course.
“When I started my dissertation, I was really interested in how behavior is reflected on the skeleton and how the skeleton could depict how people were violent towards one another,” says Cahn, “I wanted to see how the environment and the context that people are in can have an effect. Is it innate human nature, or are we patterning some sort of behavior we’ve seen elsewhere?”
Cahn explains how he “wanted to use the skeleton, because the skeleton preserves.” Where conflicting records may exist for past populations, he describes: “If you break a bone, it heals, but it leaves a scar or evidence of something happening. And so research looks at how the skeleton displays the trauma, and how trauma can be linked to different factors in the environment.”
While comparing skeletal remains from a population in the 1900s in Toronto, and one from Lisbon, Portgual, Cahn began to question methods in skeletal data comparison. His research and upcoming book highlight different outcomes based on the adoption of different methods used to study the same base data.
“This kind of design also goes into the internship course, understanding how to best structure your research, and best answer the questions you want to answer,” says Cahn.
He also mentions how a primary objective of the internship course is to help students think about their career paths. “I did really well in math and science, and so as was then, and is also now largely—if you do well in math and science you’re going to be a doctor, and often times when you’re a teenager, you don’t know what you want, despite the streamlining they do now where they want you to know what to do by when you’re six,” Cahn explains.
Cahn completed his undergraduate studies in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa. After completing undergraduate research work in molecular biology, he realized, “It was too small scale, and although I didn’t want to go to medical school, I still wanted to apply my skills in a more immediate way.”
Before the advent of CSI and other popular crime shows on television, Cahn mentions how he “came across a powerpoint presentation from Dr. Tracy Rogers, director of the forensic science program at UTM, saying: “So you want to be a forensic anthropologist?” So I learnt more about it, and I immediately liked the applicability and the ability to ask questions.”
After moving to Toronto on a whim, Cahn completed his Master of Science in anthropolgy degree, and has since been doing research, teaching, and casework.
“While it is important to convey to the students to ask yourself about what you want to do, it’s also just as important, or a good starting point, to figure out what you not want to do—that we try to get across in the internship course, where they get a real exposure to an environment and decide if that’s what they want to be in or not,” says Cahn.
“Forensic science is an applied field, where principles can be taken from other fields, with an added layer, and so it’s not less than any other field, it’s just that you have a forensic mindset,” explains Cahn, adding that with forensic science research, there is a practical end goal with a much more immediate outcome.
“Student research is very broad, where one student may use drones to map out accident scenes and assist with accident reconstruction. And this is not a thought experiment, the outcome could be more accuracy, a quicker reconstruction, understanding safety, something very practical,” says the forensic anthropologist.
He also mentions the wide range of topics studied under the umbrella of forensic science: “You have the staples, such as finger printing methods and forensic anthropology, studying how bodies decompose in certain environments, and how to identify trauma in skeletal remains. And students may also use drones and 3D mapping, where all the projects have an application.“
“The internship is also about professionalism and we do a lot of training in oral presentations and structure and how to convey information,” adds Cahn. The course also includes resume writing workshops. “We also do mock interviews, where students find a forensic job posting—something they would like to apply to, and they write up a cover letter and put together a CV or resume as if they were actually applying to the job.”
Addressing employment possibilities for students, Cahn states, “We have the HR director from the Centre of Forensic Sciences come in and give lectures on what they’re looking for in terms of interviewees, and we also do mock trials, where we bring in actual lawyers to cross examine students based on their research as if they were on the stand, so they can get a little sliver of what it’s like.”
Students are also required to write a research proposal and learn how to apply for ethics approval, “They structure the questions they need to ask, how to analyze their data, and then how to present it,” says Cahn.
Students present their findings at the Forensic Science Day at the end of the school year. “A lot of them also go on to publish their results in the Journal of Forensic Sciences or Innocence Canada, or in-house bulletins, or make information guides for the coroner’s office, or the ministry of environment, or a variety of institutions where there is an outcome,” explains Cahn.
He emphasizes on the development of transferrable skills through the course by saying that “Even if you don’t go into forensic science, you learn about project management, putting together a budget, making timelines, writing proposals—these are useful skills that students can adopt elsewhere.”
While mentioning the importance of adapting to a professional work environment and networking with colleagues, Cahn highlights independence of students in the course and how they are required to take initiative.
“Being at the coroner’s office, for example, students might look in on some autopsies, interview pathologists, they might get trained on how they do CT scanning of remains, and so they get skills by just being there,” he says. “And at the end of the day it’s still science, it’s still the scientific method they use, it’s still rigorous, it’s still statistics, outcomes, and self-reflections, and all those core tenants of research still exist.”
Cahn mentions that “It’s tremendously important to get experience and to get an accurate idea—you will never know 100 per cent and we give you a taste.” With regards to finding careers, he states: “It gives you some experience so you can make the right choices going forward and can proceed on a career path that is better for you. Again, there’s no rush, but it’s just good to know.”