ASU's interdisciplinary forensics program equips students to make a difference in a variety of careers
Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2015, click here.
A bottle of Turnbull's scotch whisky sits next to an overturned bottle of pills on an end table. Next to the table, a man is seated in an armchair, a pillow covering his face.
The scene is straight out of an episode of "CSI" — that is, until forensics professor Kimberly Kobojek lifts the pillow from the man’s face to reveal that it’s not a man at all, but a Styrofoam dummy head. The liquor and pills are props, too.
What makes the scene so convincing is not only the materials used — which include professional-grade crime-scene markers and ultraviolet light to fluoresce biological fluids — but also the care taken by Kobojek in constructing it.
Before becoming a clinical associate professor in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences on Arizona State University’s West campus, Kobojek worked for 17 years as a forensic scientist with the City of Phoenix Police Department Crime Laboratory.
At different times, she worked in the controlled-substances unit, the toxicology/blood-alcohol unit and the forensic biology unit. She even testified as an expert witness or was involved in a number of groundbreaking or high-profile criminal cases in Maricopa County, including the “Baseline Killer” case.
Though her father had been a police officer, Kobojek never intended to follow in his footsteps. As an undergrad at ASU, she majored in biology with the intent of becoming a teacher. That ambition fell temporarily by the wayside as her career with the Phoenix Police Department progressed, but reignited when she began leading forensic training sessions with police officers.
“That was when I rediscovered my passion for teaching,” Kobojek said.
She decided to go back to school to get her master’s in biology when a friend happened to mention an opportunity at ASU. There was a new program, her friend told her, and it needed a director. The subject matter, she said, was right up Kobojek’s alley.
“So I put in application,” she said. “And the more I researched ASU West … the more excited I became.
“After my on-campus interview, I was floored; I really wanted to be here. And then I was fortunate enough that they hired me.”
The official launch of the forensics program was the fall 2014 semester. Only available through New College on ASU’s West campus, the program offers a bachelor’s in forensics, as well as a bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in forensics.
That first semester, 120 students enrolled in the forensics major, and 42 students enrolled in the forensics concentration. The fall 2015 semester saw an increase in enrollment in both, with 159 forensics major students and 45 forensics concentration students.
“I think there’s a real national demand, both in terms of student interest and in terms of professional need,” said Marlene TrompTromp also serves as a professor of English and women and gender studies, and as vice provost of ASU's West campus., dean of New College, citing a national backlog in crime labs.
“And one of the great things about a forensics degree is that when you’re trained in forensic science, you’re taking biology, chemistry, mathematics and computing; so forensics is not your only option when you graduate, and those are the fastest-growing, most marketable areas in the economy. … So [students are] going to be able to do a lot of different things with that degree,” she said.
A self-proclaimed science lover, Tromp herself was pre-med as an undergrad. She points out that the application of forensic science isn’t limited to the courtroom. Hospitals often use forensic science to determine cause of death in autopsies, and insurance companies have used forensic science to analyze data for claims.
Students of forensic science are also qualified to work in private labs that do biological analyses, and they are well-prepared to continue on to law or medical school, according to Kobojek.
All of this attests to the inherently interdisciplinary nature of the degree, something New College is distinctly capable of nurturing.
“One of the exciting things President Crow did when he came to ASU is he said, ‘We really need to think across disciplinary lines more,’ ” Tromp said. “But New College was built that way from the very beginning. … We’ve never had traditional departments, so our faculty have always worked across those lines.”
Besides collaborating with scientists in other hard data-based fields, forensics majors also collaborate with bioethicists at West campus who are trained as philosophers.