URI’s Forensic Science Partnership celebrates 20 years of research, community service, renowned speakers

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KINGSTON, R.I. – Dec. 6, 2018 – Heading toward its 20th anniversary, the University of Rhode Island Forensic Science Partnership Seminar Series remains as popular today as when it was launched in fall 1999 as the partnership’s first achievement.

Hundreds of forensic science experts have come to the Kingston Campus to discuss everything from crime scene investigation to evidence analysis to such famous cases as the O.J. Simpson trial, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist and the investigation into the Boston Strangler.

The Forensic Science Partnership was launched in spring 1999 with a goal of linking some of the University’s top scientists in the fight against crime. Along with the lecture series and collaborations, the partnership has established a forensic science minor and a Bachelor of Science degree in forensic chemistry, and helped to inspire the creation of the University’s distinguished Digital Forensics Program.

“Harold Harrison, who started the state crime laboratory back in the early ‘50s, basically gave us the initial idea,” said Dennis Hilliard, director of the Rhode Island State Crime Laboratory at URI and adjunct professor of biomedical sciences, who created the partnership with Jimmie Oxley, professor of chemistry, and Everett E. Crisman, professor emeritus of chemical engineering. “Harrison was a professor of chemistry and during his tenure he would reach out on an informal basis to different campus departments and local police departments. So basically, we formalized a partnership that the crime lab had with multiple departments on campus.”

“For me as a new person on the campus at the time, the partnership brought together a bunch of folks,” said Oxley, “and we still have that link. Some of them have retired, but it’s a link across the campus of expertise that has been very useful.”

Over the years, faculty connected to the partnership have been involved in research on pipe bombs, breath devices that measure a driver’s alcohol level, the link between the materials in major league baseballs and the increase in home runs, the development of a data base on dyes for the FBI, and more recently criminal investigations involving metal examination of evidence.

Oxley, former director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence in Explosives Detection, Mitigation and Response at URI, has worked with the crime lab in explosive investigations. Her expertise in peroxide explosives was sought by bomb squads in the wake of the 2005 bombing in London, and she collaborated with the FBI on a simulation of the 1993 World Trade Center attack. More recently, Oxley was interviewed by more than 20 media outlets following the spate of pipe bombs mailed to prominent political leaders in late October.

In 2004, Victory Fay-Wolfe, professor of computer science who has been a frequent seminar speaker, founded URI’s Digital Forensics Program with the help of a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. “The Digital Forensics Program started in part because of the partnership and because Dennis Hilliard noticed there was no one on campus looking at the digital aspect of forensics,” said Fay-Wolfe, of South Kingstown, Rhode Island. “I give Dennis a lot of credit for having the foresight to see that this was important and to reach out.”

The program includes undergraduate and graduate tracks in digital forensics, a research program and service center. The research program has helped develop tools to detect child pornography and steganography, the encrypting of digital documents, such as stolen credit card numbers, in images.

In 2001, collaboration between the Forensic Science and Sensors and Surface Technology partnerships led to the university’s obtaining a high-resolution scanning electron microscope (SEM) able to analyze gunshot primer residue, a capability the state crime lab was lacking, said Otto Gregory, professor of chemical engineering and co-director of the sensors partnership.

Along with gunshot residue, the scanning electron microscope has been used to analyze rock, glass, paint and fiber evidence. Around 2002, it also helped the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Newport solve a 25-year-old murder. Gregory, with a student in the forensic science minor, analyzed skull fragments, enabling the NCIS to compile enough evidence for an indictment, Gregory said.

Housed in the sensors lab, the advanced microscope has also been used by faculty and students, so much so that Hilliard and Gregory are working on a grant to add a new one. “The microscope is close to 20 years old and it’s been a work horse,” said Gregory, of Narragansett, Rhode Island. “It’s been a great collaboration so we want to do it again. We need to update the technology because the technology has changed. Also, there’s been a lot of demand, so we need faster analysis. We need it to be more accurate, more precise, and all that comes with a new instrument.”

Gregory has long collaborated with Oxley on pipe bomb research, dating to before the partnership was established, and shared his knowledge in setting up the sensors partnership with Hilliard, Oxley and Crisman when the Forensic Science Partnership was being formed.

“I think they have a very popular and well-received seminar series, and they get great speakers who have tremendous insight,” said Gregory. “We have a forensic science minor and forensics was a part of the theme of the new chemistry building, which is a great facility. I see a lot of outcomes from the partnership, and ultimately one of the biggest things is the collaboration of faculty members with each other and Dennis, and the partnership is a great resource to the crime lab.”

The free, public seminar series – sponsoring about 550 lectures over 20 years – and the forensic courses that have spun from the partnership continue to attract students, either as a science elective or as requirements for the forensic science minor and bachelor’s degrees in forensic chemistry or criminal justice.

“Right now, the seminar series class has 49 students, which is a big high,” said Oxley, of Narragansett.

In the spring semester, the Introduction to Criminalists course, a requirement of the forensic science minor, will be offered. For the course, the seminar series is expanded to include the public Friday talks and a Wednesday lecture that is more detail-oriented for students.

“That class is capped at 30,” said Oxley, “but we usually get more who sign up. I usually take as many as the room will fit.”

Oxley, who has consulted on such TV shows as “CSI,” links the continued popularity to the numerous forensic investigation shows on television. “They say that if there are doctor shows on TV, all our students want to be doctors,” she said. “But forensics sort of crosses that line between science and being investigative, so I think that’s why it’s held its popularity.”

“There’s always been an interest in solving cases,” said Hilliard, of Wakefield, Rhode Island, a member of a National Institute of Standards and Technology subcommittee studying changes in forensic standards for national laboratories. “If we can solve it with science all the better. I think that interest remains there.”

The fall lecture series wraps up Friday, Dec. 7, with renowned forensic scientist Henry Lee, who has worked on such cases as the O.J. Simpson trial, the murder of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey and a reinvestigation of the evidence in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Lee will speak at 3:30 p.m. in Room 100 of the Richard E. Beaupre Center for Chemical and Forensic Sciences, 140 Flagg Rd.