These experts study some of the darkest parts of humanity and how to fix them.
As Halloween approaches, the gory and gruesome become increasingly popular. From spooky stories to monster movies, it seems everyone can enjoy being scared, at least a little. But Halloween shouldn't be limited to fictional frights. Now is also a perfect time to examine some of the darkest and most disturbing aspects of real life.
To many people, a forensic scientist is the police officers' nerdy sidekick who examines gunpowder residue, slugs and blood at a murder scene. It's gruesome and dramatic work, and it helps solve cases without fail.
It's also not true. This misperception is what experts call the “CSI” effect. Real forensic science happens in a laboratory, studying the chemistry, biology and data – including footprints, fingerprints, gunpowder, blood spatter residue, etc. – to provide information about a crime scene.
That's not to say that real forensic science is unimportant. That's obvious just from the expertise of the faculty members of the Texas Tech Institute for Forensic Science:
- Paola Prada, program director for the institute's master's degree in forensic science, is an expert in forensic analytical chemistry, particularly in chemical odor analysis and canine odor detection of explosives, narcotics and decomposition.
- Kathy Sperry, a professor of practice in the institute, specializes in serial crime and psychopathy. Clinical experience includes working with prisoners who have committed serial crimes and are psychopaths. These individuals are grandiose, impulsive, manipulative, liars who lack any guilt – traits used by mental health professionals to describe someone who often demonstrates criminality and dangerous behavior.
- Megan Thoen, the institute's director of forensic mental health services, researches the mental health and wellness of law enforcement members; disenfranchised groups, including minorities and mentally ill individuals; and their treatment within the criminal justice system.
- The Institute for Forensic Science trains the field's next generation of specialists. In addition to its academic scope is its mission in research and service to both the larger scientific community and the local criminal justice community.
- The institute offers training to supplement and complement those of law enforcement agencies; provides forensic mental health services, including court-ordered evaluations to determine whether individuals with mental illness are competent to stand trial; and houses a variety of research efforts intended to inform practice and enhance the use of forensic science in the legal and criminal justice sector.
- Forensic science can be a grisly field.
- “As a forensic scientist, I can bring justice and peace to the families of the victims of crime,” Prada said. “Assailants try to remain anonymous and hide in the dark. The power of forensic science is that it helps rebuild the story and shed light with objective facts as to what really happened without any bias by carefully examining the physical evidence at hand.”
- “For me, the most gruesome aspect of forensic science is looking at the human decomposition process,” Prada said. “There are some variables that affect how our body decomposes and the stages the body goes through after death. In line with this are the gruesome personalities some of these murderers have when performing such atrocious acts of violence. Dismemberments and blunt-force traumas are all part of the gruesome human character that forensic scientists observe when handling these cases.”
School shootings, mass murders, sex offenses, violence, gangs, substance abuse and drug-trafficking are topics generally seen as a society's worst. They are the dark underbelly that many people hate to expose because they're so disturbing.
Yet it's these very things that criminologists study.
- Criminology, housed under the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, is the study of social conditions that affect the making of laws, the breaking of laws and society's response to the making and breaking of laws.
- Many of the topics covered under criminology are taboo, to say the least. Among Texas Tech faculty members' specialties are intimate partner violence, family violence and terrorism.
- “We clearly have these problems in society, and we have to study them to understand them and then figure out how to prevent them. Every society has problems, but if we can change some of the social conditions, we can improve the society.”
- “I study mothers who kill their infants: infanticide. We believe strongly in maternal instinct and attachment, and history doesn't support that. Mother attachment was culturally invented about 200 years ago. We teach cultural attachment but not all mothers have it. Families are the heart of a society, and our families are seriously under-supported and under-appreciated. A line I use in my presentations and written work is, ‘We expect mothers to raise their children in their spare time with their spare change.' This stress can result in violence toward children.”
- “I study violence against children, certainly within family violence, but also in the school, such as in school shootings. How does a kid go from being a bullying victim to a school shooter?”