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Colloquium: Forensic Science: utilizing the physical sciences to address criminal and intelligence problems

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Jack Hietpas, The Pennsylvania State University
05 April 2018 from 3:45 PM to 4:45 PM
117 Osmond Laboratory
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This presentation will discuss what forensic science actually is as opposed to what is portrayed on television and in headline-grabbing print media.  Forensic science is a relatively new field of science that dates to only the early-mid 20th century.  There are two common perceptions of the field.  The first is that it is composed of police officers and detectives that have little scientific background or understanding.  The second, propagated by popular television shows, is that forensic science is a form of magic that can provide irrefutable, exact, ultra-high resolution evidence (proof) for the various aspects of crime events within a 60 minute time frame.  The reality is that the forensic science field, when properly practiced, follows rigorous scientifically sound principles, limitations, and scrutiny. The phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” is particularly meaningful when describing the forensic field. The foundation of forensic science is the traditional fundamental physical sciences (e.g. Physics, Chemistry, and Biology). However forensic science is defined as the science of individualization; stated another way it is the science of source identification.  Because crime events involve human activity and physical objects, essentially everything in modern society could potentially be evidence.  Thus a forensic scientist must draw upon and interpret the various forms of physical evidence using the fundamental principles of the all the physical sciences. The field is certainly not perfect; there is a lot of room for improvement.  Consequently there is a large amount of science that needs to be investigated.  This is rewarding because the results from forensic research projects have immediate and long-term societal impact.   

Current research projects from members of the Forensic Science Program will be presented.  This will provide a broad overview of the diversity of projects and the various experimental techniques that we use to address the current needs of the forensic science community.  In addition, actual casework that the author and colleagues have worked on will be presented.  These cases show how the scientific thought processes and methods are used to address criminal and intelligence questions.