Trio takes Forensic Science's unity to the next level

GCU Forensic Science graduates (from left) Hannah David, David Carillo and Emily Helmes all will be attending the same graduate school, the University of California, Davis. This photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

David mans the blood spatter booth at Forensic Science Day in March.

Hannah David was the first to get her letter: “Congratulations! It is my distinct pleasure to inform you that you have been admitted as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, for the MS program in Forensic Science.”

“It was Valentine’s Day, so that was kind of fun. It was a weird gift to myself,” said David, who is sheltering at home with her family in Modesto, Calif.

She was over the moon and immediately texted David Carillo, her friend and fellow graduate of Grand Canyon University’s Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science program. While she had applied to four graduate schools, she knew he put all his eggs into one basket: UC Davis.

“I said, ‘Hey, I got my letter,” and, like the forensic investigator she’s studying to be, she added, “Be on the lookout.”

Three hours later, Carillo received his acceptance letter.

The two of them were to head off to the same grad school together.

Helmes wants to work in a crime lab.

But then several weeks later, another classmate, Emily Helmes, also was celebrating. Though she had applied to multiple graduate schools as well, she also was UC Davis-bound.

Three applied, three made it in, three of them – all close friends who graduated in April from GCU’s close-knit Forensic Science program – now won’t have to worry about not knowing anyone when they start their master’s degree studies at the end of September.

“I freaked out,” David said of all of them getting into the same graduate school. “I immediately texted (Dr.) Melissa Beddow and told her.”

Beddow, Director of the Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science program, herself completed her graduate studies at UC Davis.

“It’s very competitive to get into,” she said. “They keep their cohorts small (generally around 40 students get accepted each year). This is why they usually don’t take so many students from the same undergraduate program.”

For not one but three of her students to be accepted into her alma mater has made her feel as if her efforts in helping develop GCU’s Forensic Science program have come full circle.

Most students who receive their bachelor’s degrees in Forensic Science don’t do what David, Carillo and Helmes are doing -- those other students will move straight into the workforce rather than pursue their master's.

The Forensic Science program is a tight-knit group.

“That’s because a master’s degree isn’t required,” Beddow said. “But the job market is becoming so competitive that those with the higher-level degree automatically get moved to the top of the interview list. In the past few years we’ve had more students express an interest in graduate school, and more are starting to apply.”

Helmes said she’s hoping her master’s will help her achieve her goal of working in a crime lab. Carillo is looking to double up and work as a lab technician while he’s completing his master’s. And David hopes to go into toxicology.

When the three students start their graduate studies, they’ll be doing so with an advantage – with a couple of friends by their side.

It’s a friendship that was easy to develop at GCU.

In the College of Science, Engineering and Technology, one of the goals is to create a welcoming experience in the classrooms and a sense of community in the college’s courses and programs.

Twenty students graduated from the burgeoning program this spring.

Carillo (front) said his friendships helped him succeed in his studies.

“We got to see each other literally almost every single day,” said Carillo, a Santa Rosa-turned-Dixon, Calif., resident who is finishing up degree requirements this summer for his second bachelor’s degree from GCU, in pre-medicine.

“I think for one semester, we actually did see each other every single day. It was really great. We had a lot of good times together. We collaborated. And we helped each other pass a lot of different classes that we wouldn’t have passed if we were working on them separately.”

Helmes, who is from Roseville, Calif., agreed that there’s just something special about the relationships between GCU’s Forensic Science students.

“Everyone was really close compared to the other programs. We would be taking classes with a lot of the pre-med majors or pre-PA (physician assistant) or pre-whatever,” Helmes said. “They would always tell us, ‘It’s super cool that you guys are all close. Everyone in pre-med is super competitive with each other.’

“But in forensics, everyone works together to get everything done and make sure everyone understands it. It’s just something I really loved about the program.”

Beddow said, “I personally consider this one of the hallmarks of our Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science program: Students form strong friendships that elevate their performance in classes. When one starts to fall, the others rally around to lift each other up. These friendships extend well into adulthood.”

Beyond the camaraderie, what Carillo loved about GCU’s Forensic Science program is that the classes are very hands-on. Students delve into everything from forensic photography, in which they actually take photographs of actors in crime scene scenarios, to toxicology analyses, to spending time in the DNA lab.

Dr. Melissa Beddow (right), Director of the Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science program, speaks with a few student volunteers on Forensic Science Day.

“Our students work with the same instrumentation and techniques currently being used by crime labs and crime scene processors,” said Beddow. It’s that kind of tactile learning that helps to solidify scientific concepts and processes and improve retention.

David, who changed her major from pre-med to forensic science, not only has praise for the curriculum and hands-on experiences, but she was able to land an internship with the Office of the Medical Examiner for Maricopa County.

“I actually worked with the medical legal death investigators, and that was a great experience," she said. "I got that (internship opportunity) through Melissa Beddow, through pushing me and filling out an application and following through with everything.”

She also was vice president of the GCU Forensic Science Society. The club allowed her to meet students from all over campus who love forensic science even though they might not be majoring in it.

It is because of Beddow and the rest of the faculty in the program that David said she, Carillo and Helmes were more than prepared to make it into a strong forensic science graduate school such as UC Davis.

David, who was an intern for the Office of the Medical Examiner for Maricopa County, said the strength of GCU's Forensic Science program helped her get into UC Davis grad school.

“I think what’s going to be really cool is the UC Davis program isn’t really big, either, and going from the program we just had at GCU into another more intimate program is going to work really well for all of us,” David said.

Carillo is counting on his friendship with the other two students to help carry him through his master’s program, just as it did for his bachelor’s degree: “We know each other, and we have this nice friendship connection that enables us to work well with each other and learn from each other.”

“I can’t give Melissa Beddow enough praise for what she’s done,” David said. “She really put her heart and soul into the Forensic Science program. She listens to everything we tell her with our feedback, and she’s always wanting to improve, always wanting to build. I think that’s why our program is so strong.”

It's also why the three friends will be a strong force at UC Davis, just as they were at GCU.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: It's a crime to not love Forensic Science Day

GCU Today: Photography a focus for forensic science students 

CBS 5 Arizona's Family: Forensic science program gets an upgrade at GCU


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