Sweet Science: New DNA, Forensic Chemistry Labs Open This Fall
By Michael Ferraresi
GCU News Bureau
Talk about working under a microscope.
The DNA lab on the fourth floor of GCU’s brand-new College of Arts and Sciences building features a giant window separating students from visitors in the hallway – not to micromanage the novice DNA analysts, but rather to shine a spotlight on the detail-oriented work being conducted in one of five new laboratories on campus.
Few students will be trained enough to test bodily fluids and conduct DNA comparisons by this fall. But that’s simply because the forensics program is less than two years old. With nearly 400 new forensic science students beginning prerequisite courses, the labs should see heavy use as the forensics program continues to evolve.
In addition to the DNA lab, the 73,000-square-foot Arts and Sciences building includes two general chemistry labs, an organic chemistry lab and a forensic chemistry lab. Forensic science students will be joined by others in nursing, biology pre-med and other programs that require lab work.
Melissa Beddow, the assistant professor who leads GCU’s forensic science program, said students will use the same tools in the new Arts and Sciences building as they’ll encounter in most professional DNA labs. The idea is to distinguish GCU from other universities, by giving more hands-on opportunity to undergraduates and better equip them for the workforce.
“They’re actually going to be able to add to a resume that they’ve worked with those instruments,” Beddow said. “It’s set up like a real DNA lab, just like you’d see at any crime lab.
“The hardest part about getting a job in forensic science is the initial job. It’s very competitive. Personally, it took me one year of applying to a bunch of different labs before I got a job.”
The DNA lab is a major improvement from the 1970s facilities at the Tell Science building, where forensic students worked on fingerprinting, taking plaster casts of footprints and other basic CSI-like techniques in semesters past.
GCU’s first forensic science graduates are scheduled to earn their diplomas this fall. Last semester, there were around 300 students enrolled in the program, but the popularity of crime scene and DNA analyses shot enrollment numbers to around 700 total for the fall.
Lab manager Teresa Bohman said the new Arts and Sciences labs will include special airflow features to maintain sanitation. As many as 24 students will fit into a single classroom lab, she said, although for some courses as few as 12 would be optimal. It will all depend on enrollment figures.
Many students will be working with samples of blood, saliva and semen ordered from a company in St. Louis. The samples are used by forensic program students to develop DNA readings from samples that simulate crime-scene evidence collection.
Bohman, whose background is in DNA sequencing, said she’s pleased with the opportunity GCU students will have to do what many undergraduates miss at larger universities.
“Students at a lot of big universities have the ability to join a big research lab, but they’re cleaning glassware or doing the stuff the grad students don’t want to do,” said Bohman, who is organizing other lab coordinators to ensure efficient workflow in the new labs from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
The focus at GCU is on preparing students for work at labs or in municipal police crime labs. In order to land those jobs, they must be able to demonstrate how to use the instruments used by the pros.
Bohman said the hands-on mentality is essential, and the forensics program requires that students pass their foundational chemistry coursework before working in the DNA lab.
“By the time you get to DNA class, you’re not randomly putting substances into an instrument — you understand what’s happening at the molecular level,” she said.