The University of Southern Mississippi has received a top 10 national ranking for its forensics undergraduate degree program in a recent announcement by forensicscolleges.com.
USM’s program is ranked No. 8 nationally among the 15 universities to receive recognition. Many different characteristics of school programs were considered when deciding what schools to place on the list. Schools that offer students hands-on skills with laboratory classes, seminars and internships, or field study were highly rated. Other factors that were considered included the facilities at a school, its partnerships and career placement opportunities.
Dr. Dean Bertram teamed with Dr. Gerald Mattson to create USM’s forensic science bachelor’s degree program approximately 15 years ago. Prior to that, the program was simply offered as a minor housed within the Department of Polymer Science. What began with only seven students has blossomed into a highly regarded program featuring more than 200 students.
“What really kickstarted the program was the popularity of forensic science television shows that were prevalent in the late 1990s into 2000,” said Bertram, who retired at the end of June as professor emeritus. “However, the biggest boost for our program came in mid-2000 when Southern Miss was awarded a $1.2 million grant by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance. With that money, the university was able to create a state-of-the art teaching and research laboratory that was set up to mimic a real-life state and federal laboratory.”
In the USM program, students are introduced to and trained on the various forensic techniques used in the field and in the laboratory environment. Students are also trained in the presentation of evidence in the courtroom. Selection of an emphasis area allows students to establish expertise within a specific dimension of forensic science.
During their course of study, students are able to complete coursework in drug identification and analysis, DNA, fingerprinting, crime scene documentation, firearms identification and arson investigation, among others.
Bertram notes that many graduates from USM’s forensics program are currently employed with laboratories, hospitals, law enforcement agencies and related disciplines. They work on the local and state levels, all the way to the highest offices in federal government. He said that the caliber of students helped bring the program from a fledgling concept to a nationally ranked training curriculum.
“As a team, our faculty spent exhausting hours recruiting the highest caliber students from all over,” said Bertram. “It was very common to have over 50 percent of the students in the first Introduction to Forensic Science class (50 students per class) to be from a state besides Mississippi. When I recruited students, I always told them to pick a university based on the program. The students who have graduated from the program over the last 26 years are what makes this degree program so special.”
One such graduate is Richard Swearengin, who earned his bachelor’s degree in forensic chemistry in 2008. Today, he works as a supervisory physical scientist at the Latent Prints Defense Forensic Science Center’s Forensic Exploitation Directorate, under the auspices of the U.S. Army.
Swearengin said his time spent in the USM program only fortified his appreciation for forensic science.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the content of the program as well as the networking opportunities presented by the faculty,” he said. “We were able to get hands-on experience while meeting and holding discussions with experts in the field. What brought me to forensic science is a love for science and a desire to obtain truth through the application of science.”
Swearengin’s career has already been filled with numerous highlights. He has traveled around the world, working as a practicing latent print examiner or providing subject matter expertise to countries such as Afghanistan, Kuwait, Canada, Djibouti, Algeria, Mexico, Honduras, Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Bahrain, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany and a few others.
“I have had the honor of working directly with the U.S. and coalition forces in processing material that helped identify people who made or emplaced devices that were designed to cause harm or training others to accomplish that mission,” he said. “To date I have deployed outside the continental U.S. six times in support of that mission, having spent more than 1,200 days in a deployed laboratory.”