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How television crime dramas and a visionary leader helped shape one of the nation’s top forensic science programs

The year was 2000.

Piggybacking off the success of popular crime dramas of the time including such hits as “Law and Order,” CBS Television launched a revolutionary new show titled “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” detailing a team of crime-scene investigators using physical evidence to solve murders.

The show’s popularity spawned several spinoffs, including versions of the show based in major cities around the United States, until its ultimate finale in September 2015. For 15 years the show caught the eye of viewers around the world and led to numerous other hit forensic-based television franchises.

While the unique premise of the show sparked a wave of popular TV dramas, oddly enough where the impact was felt most was at universities and centers across the country that taught the same techniques and methods that were found weeknights on televisions across the country.

“In the early years of the forensic science program, we benefitted from the number of CSI programs on television. Students viewed forensic science as an interesting and rewarding career,” said Dr. Terry Fenger, founder of Marshall University’s Forensic Science Center. “At the same time, there were only a handful of forensic science programs offered through universities. That has changed over time and there are now many programs, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels in forensic science.”

While many schools were reactionary to the boom of interest in the forensic sciences, Fenger was quite the opposite, bringing the program to Marshall University in 1994 when he began the Forensic Science Graduate Program. Additionally, Fenger took the lead and taught various courses within the curriculum including DNA technologies, Digital Forensics, bioterrorism, crime scene investigation and laboratory management.

Earning his Ph.D. in Microbiology from Southern Illinois University, Fenger moved to Huntington in 1979. He was initially employed by the School of Medicine, where he conducted research on viruses while teaching second-year medical students clinical and basic science concepts of virology.

Eventually, he strongly felt the need for a forensic science program at Marshall and, in 1997, saw the program graduate its first class. Since then, the program has expanded to cover a number of different specializations including DNA Analysis, Forensic Chemistry, Digital Forensics, and Crime Scene Investigation.

“Our first class consisted of seven students, but it has expanded on average to 16 students per class,” Fenger said. “Students entering the program have a strong background in chemistry and biology, which is a requirement for admission to the program. They must also pass a background check to ensure their suitability to enter law enforcement professions.

“In addition to the original areas of emphasis in DNA analysis, chemistry and crime scene investigation, digital device forensics was added as an area of emphasis in the forensic science curriculum. Today, the MU Forensic Science Center is fortunate to house the West Virginia Police Digital Forensics Laboratory, which also avails our students to learn from a working casework laboratory.”

In those early days, the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center was slated to be the home for forensic science at Marshall, but administrators decided that a separate, more secure campus would better serve the forensic and biomedical sciences. That is when the idea was conceived to locate the program at the original home of Marshall University football at the old Fairfield Stadium location.

“The Fairfield location was thought to be an ideal location because the football facilities building could be developed into laboratories and there was land available for development of additional buildings,” Fenger said. “The two and three-story buildings were therefore developed over the following years with help from multiple areas of funding.”

The early years of the program started slowly and saw the Fairfield location shared by students and researchers from multiple disciplines. Eventually though, the forensic program grew and began to consolidate all its different areas of study into one location, a location that it would eventually share with West Virginia law enforcement and agencies from other states.

“Up until that time, the academic program had paid rent for laboratories located off campus, which stressed the program financially and was a hardship for the students,” Fenger said. “Medical school researchers occupied the second floor of the West Wing Annex until it was decided that the medical school labs would move to the Weisberg Engineering Building and that our second-floor labs would house various research laboratories of the master’s degree program and would be used to support local and state law enforcement.

“Really, one of the underlying missions of the Marshall University Forensic Science Center was to advance economic development in West Virginia.”

And that is when the program truly began to take off.

In addition to a strong curriculum and talented professionals guiding students, access to police laboratories and active cases gave Marshall University students a truly unique learning experience.

“Concomitant with the development of the academic program, the Forensic Science DNA Analysis Laboratory was established,” Fenger said. “Initially, under the authority of the West Virginia State Police Crame Laboratory, the MU laboratory DNA tested samples from convicted offenders within the West Virginia law enforcement system to develop the WV CODIS database.

“The fact that the accredited laboratory is housed on the same campus as the academic program allows students to see first-hand how technologies are utilized to solve crimes and how laboratories are managed to meet quality assurance standards. Marshall University is one of only a few universities that has accredited working laboratories on-site of its forensic science programs.”

Because of that unique relationship between Marshall and regional law enforcement, Marshall’s forensic science graduate program is considered by many to be the best in the United States, due largely to an atypical combination of small class size, breadth of curriculum and sheer proximity to actual forensic scientists doing real casework.

On the national stage, Marshall’s forensic science program has grown into an award-winning program that has attracted the attention of faculty and students from around the world. Just last year, students of the program achieved the highest collective scores in the nation on the Forensic Science Assessment Test.

There is still room for growth, however, and Fenger remains committed to doing his part to help advance the program, even after retiring in 2017.

“Because of the expansion in the number of forensic science programs throughout the United States, there is now competition for highly-qualified students. And not all of them have the financial resources to extend their education beyond a bachelor’s degree,” Fenger said. “That is where scholarships come into play to help students aspire to attain additional education.”

Earlier this year, Michael J. and Tamela J. Farrell, attorneys at the Huntington, West Virginia, firm Farrell, White & Legg, established the Terry W. and Sandra J. Fenger Forensic Science Scholarship to help aid students of the graduate degree program. Prior to that, Tamela Farrell established the Paul H. and Dixie O. Nicely Scholarship in honor of her parents, giving the program two strong scholarships to build upon.

“In the case of the scholarships established by Michael and Tamela Farrell, a primary focus will be to support qualified students from West Virginia and the metro area, although students from outside of West Virginia will also be viable candidates as the endowment increases,” Fenger added.

Already one of the most respected programs in the country, Fenger said there is no reason that the forensic science program at Marshall can’t continue to evolve and expand, especially as technologies advance and the need for talented forensic scientists grows around the world.

“In 10 to 20 years, I see the program expanding in the number of students enrolled in the program,” Fenger said. “As technologies develop and advance, students will be trained in these technologies. Computer analysis of forensic evidence and database development will continue to expand, which will place additional demands on practicing forensic scientists.

“And I know Marshall University will be well-positioned to accept these challenges.”