The Future of Forensic Training Programs

An Interview with Skip Palenik, President and Senior Research Microscopist of Microtrace LLC

August 07, 2008

Wayne Buttermore, Manager Regional Sales Industry at Leica Microsystems, interviewed Skip Palenik to hear his perspective on the benefits of continuing education in forensic science. Palenik, President and Senior Research Microscopist of Microtrace LLC, sits on the Board of Directors at the McCrone Research Institute (McRI), Chicago. Palenik conducts courses in photomicrography, applied polarized light microscopy, identification of small particles, advanced crystallography, and scanning electron microscopy, among others.

For more than thirty years, Palenik has worked as a research microscopist. His work has helped provide crucial evidence in many criminal investigations, and Palenik has testified in and worked on many highprofile cases. As a lecturer and writer, he has also contributed to current education and literature regarding microscopy and chemistry.

Skip Palenik

Buttermore: The excitement generated by today’s forensic TV programs and current events have stimulated the public’s interest in forensic science. What impact does this have on recruiting people into the McRI training programs?

Palenik: Forensic TV shows have had a major impact, but it’s a double-edged sword. The good thing is that a lot more people apply for and attend educational programs and schools. In general the forensic community sees more people from academic institutions with basic science training that want to explore a career in forensic science. There is a much larger number of students applying for short courses such as those we teach at McRI, although we target and attract people already working in the forensic field. Microscopic trace evidence is my specialty, and I assume that anyone with at least a four-year degree attending one of my classes has the fundamental science skills mastered.

The flip side of the coin is that some people are surprised that they have to learn chemistry, biology, and physics to work with trace evidence. I have friends that are university professors of forensic science, and they have had new students that are actually appalled at the prospect of studying science.

Buttermore: How do programs like McRI ultimately benefit the forensic community?

Palenik: Most university programs don’t offer in depth forensic science training. For example, when I conduct specialized training in microtracing, I put my students in situations where they see how different science disciplines are used. Physics courses do not talk much about chemistry – chemistry courses don’t talk much about physics or biology – but applied, analytical, and forensic microscopy shows students how the concepts of light, electricity, chemical behavior, biological compounds, etc. work together.

Buttermore: How do McRI courses supplement the training that goes on everyday in the lab?

Palenik: Like the lab, McRI courses takes science and applies it to real life. Naturally, everyone obtains a lot of training on the job in the crime lab. But, you are also limited by the particular experience of the people that work in your laboratory. That is why many people opt for specialized courses, at least in microscopy, where they get the benefit of being taught by world-leading scientists.

Buttermore: Clearly there is a need and expectation from the forensic community for continuing education, right?

Palenik: Absolutely. Some organizations have certification programs to help its members keep current and proficient through course work, meetings, and training. One of the requirements under the FBI’s SWGMAT guidelines is that crime labs achieve certain minimum levels to ensure that, for example, new scientists starting to work in trace analysis receive training in polarized microscopy and more.

At the moment there are very few options other than McRI for someone wanting to learn and polish their skills in analytical microscopy. As we touched on earlier, academic institution are simply not providing high-level microscopy training for forensic scientists. High-level standards of analytical microscopy were set forth by Walter McCrone in all of his writing and lectures over the years. He continually sought to expand the field of application but also the understanding and application of the microscope – in all areas of science where problem solving is involved.

Buttermore: Do you tend to train more on applied practice or theoretical knowledge at McRI and Microtrace?

Palenik: My training will definitely remind students of the things they learned in college physics; for example, light, atomic, and molar refractivity. But I show students how it applies – measuring the particular index of refraction of a fiber and why it is useful when comparing known fiber with unknown fiber. Students connect college physics with the work in a crime lab and learn why they do what they are asked to do. I give them the reason behind it and hopefully it helps transform them from forensic technicians into true forensic scientists.

Buttermore: The forensic community backs continuing education with regional, national, and international meetings. Do agencies accurately budget for their people to participate in meetings and McRI courses?

Palenik: I am aware of many forensic scientists who struggle throughout their careers to get training. So the fact that we now have accredited laboratories that must train personnel helps. There are forensic labs with very dedicated people that were never shown any techniques and do not have the experience and expertise in house. They were being asked to do things they simply did not know how to do. They find out they were completely wrong in the way they handle certain pieces of evidence when an expert comes from somewhere else and does it correctly.

There are still labs that are not getting technical training. I know one lab on the west coast that has a budget of $ 600.00 per person for its people to attend one advanced training course a year. But a trip anywhere, apart from the tuition, could cost over $ 1,000.00. People want to attend courses, but the funds are not available, so they use vacation time and their personal funds to obtain more training. This is not at all unusual for forensic scientists.

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