Nine girls were not afraid to get their hands dirty, with their parents’ approval, Wednesday night at the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Technology (PCAT). The girls used volcanic ash powder and magnetic powder to dust for prints in a hands on course that teaches the real techniques behind the CSI series.
The new non-profit forensic science program, Club Philly Forensics, is the creation of the Association of Women in Forensic Science (AWIFS). The hour-long class will take place every third Wednesday of the month until June.
In addition to hands-on forensic science activities, the program offers college prep, mentoring, and monthly guest speakers from a variety of science professions. Antoinette Thwaites is a forensic chemist for the Philadelphia Police Department Forensic Science Bureau and founder and CEO of AWIFS. She started the association because she saw the need to mentor young women interested in her field. The PCAT program is also open to boys. “You don’t find a lot of African American women in science, and you don’t find a lot of women in science, period,” she said, adding, that forensic science is one of the few branches that is “female-dominated.” Before bringing out the equipment Wednesday night, she began the class by explaining the distinction between forensic chemists and forensic toxicologists. Forensic chemists, she said, analyze drugs before ingestion. For example they would analyze confiscated drugs to confirm they were an illegal substance. Forensic chemists also testify in municipal and federal court. Forensic toxicologists, on the the other hand, analyze drugs after ingestion, through autopsies, where samples of bodily fluids are examined, Thwaites explained. Thwaites felt the need to clear up a few facts about her field because of the inaccuracies portrayed in popular shows like CSI. “CSI is a very good show…but it’s not accurate,” she said. “We don’t get the results in five minutes. We never say that a sample is a match. We say that it’s consistent with.” While shows like CSI make forensic science hip and cool, Thwaites urged students to master the basics of math and science if they want to enter the field. “STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) is the reason why you guys are using Facebook, why you’re using Twitter…those cool iPhones and iPads. Who do you think developed those and how do you think they developed them? It’s because they had to have some background in technology, science and math.” Mark Williford, a 19-year veteran of the Philadelphia police, has worked in the crime scene unit for 12 years. As guest speaker and instructor he taught students about trace evidence used in criminal investigations. The students performed a latent fingerprint examination using three different techniques: magnetic powder, Mikrosil (a casting mold) and conventional black powder made from volcanic ash. After rubbing their hands over their faces, students placed their hands on a sheet of paper. Using magnetic powder, they dabbed the paper with a pen-like tool and then, suspending the pen mid-air, they magnetically swept the powder. As a result, blackened fingerprints appeared on the sheet as the students gasped in admiration. They used Mikrosil, a paste like substance, to take an impression of a penny. The casting mold is used by forensic scientists to create tool mark impressions in order to determine what instruments are used in a crime. Conventional black powder, made from volcanic ash, was brushed over empty soda cans and water bottles. The ash revealed prints where the bottles had been touched. In February, the club will learn about footprints by taking a print from a shoe. In March, they will investigate how blood splatter patterns (simulated) can indicate how a crime was committed.