CSI: Moscow

Friday, January 16 2009

Jan. 16, 2009 Photo is available at www.today.uidaho.edu/PhotoList.aspx Written by Ken Kingery MOSCOW, Idaho – Move over, Gil Grissom. CSI – or Crime Scene Investigators – has arrived in Moscow. But the characters aren’t part of a fictional television show, and they’re playing for keeps. Taking center stage in this unscripted drama is a brand new gas chromatography-mass spectrometer (GC/MS) recently installed specifically for undergraduate teaching in the basement of Renfrew Hall. The machine that chemically analyzes drugs and poisons will support a new forensics degree in chemistry that began last semester at the University of Idaho. “The GC/MS is pretty sophisticated,” said Ray von Wandruszka, professor of chemistry and department chair, and driving force behind the new program. “Even I can’t just walk in and operate this thing.” The GC/MS takes a sample, vaporizes it and runs it through a 90-foot tube just wide enough to fit a dust particle. The journey causes the different components to separate before exiting the tube into an electric field created by a quadrupole magnet. Manipulating the electric field individually selects and detects the mass of the different components. The resulting mass spectrum is compared to a massive database, revealing the original compound’s identity. According to von Wandruszka, determining a compound’s identity is one of the most important aspects of forensic science. When he asked Jason Stenzel, forensic scientist at Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory Division and Idaho alumnus, to identify the most important piece of equipment in a forensics lab, Stenzel immediately said a GC/MS. The forensics track at the university joins the three existing chemistry degrees: general, professional and pre-med. It takes a full set of chemistry courses, but adds classes in pertinent disciplines such as genetics, forensic geology, statistics, justice studies and criminal justice. Once completed, a student will have the basic knowledge required to become a forensic scientist. However, the degree is in chemistry – not forensics. Additional training would be required at a forensics laboratory to learn the finer points. This is a point of which von Wandruszka is proud. “Even if you decided that forensics isn’t for you after all, you would still have a very good chemistry degree and could work somewhere else,” said von Wandruszka. “You’re not putting all your eggs in one basket.” If there is already a main character in the forensic program’s plot, Rachel Hailey is it. She will learn how to use the GC/MS next semester and become the resident expert to help teach those who follow her. A junior who switched from general chemistry into the new forensics program last fall, Hailey has wanted to be a CSI since junior high. “This is why I went into chemistry. I wanted it to be my foundation for going into forensics,” said Hailey. “I actually was upset when the show came out because I wanted to do it before it became popular!” However, popularity is part of the reason the degree is being offered. A demand was recognized and von Wandruszka realized it could be met by simply shuffling existing classes into a new curriculum. The only expenditure was the GC/MS, which was funded by the Donald E. Roberts Educational Enhancement Endowment earmarked for improving chemistry infrastructure. “We may just have chemistry students switching tracks internally,” said von Wandruszka. “But I think we also might get some extra people into chemistry who wouldn’t have done it otherwise.” # # # About the University of Idaho Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 150 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu. Media Contact: Ken Kingery, University Communications, (208) 885-9156, kkingery@uidaho.edu

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit www.uidaho.edu.