WU Students Investigate Forensic Biology with New Class
Kevin Latman '06 (left) and Joe Broucek '07 (right) watch as Francesca Catalano, visiting
assistant professor of biology, investigates "evidence."
December 6, 2005
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - This December at Illinois Wesleyan University, while other students
were frantically sharpening their pencils and printing off final copies of papers,
the 12 students in IWU's newest biology course, Human Heredity and Forensic Biology,
were preparing to identify fingerprints of a suspect. Instead of giving a traditional
final examination, Francesca Catalano, visiting assistant professor of biology at
IWU, provided students with packets of "evidence" to use to solve a mock crime. The
practical final exam used faculty volunteers as "criminals" and "victims."
The 100 level biology class is intended to attract the interest of students who might
otherwise not take a college-level science class. "This is a liberal arts university.
Students need to have a strong foundation in everything, including science," Catalano
With the interests and abilities of non-science majors in mind, Catalano designed
a course that would provide a background in molecular biology as well as the basics
of legal theory and criminal justice. During the fall semester, Catalano also expanded
and adapted the curriculum to include ballistics, arson investigation and hand-writing
analysis. "It's great to offer interdisciplinary courses to students at this university,"
said Catalano, who earned both a doctorate of jurisprudence from DePaul University
and a doctorate in microbiology from Loyola University.
Creativity has been the order of the semester. Unable to find a text appropriate
for the class she wanted to teach, Catalano worked with publishers to build her own
biology textbook for the class by compiling relevant and level-appropriate chapters
from a variety of textbooks into a spiral-bound volume of photocopies.
The class also visited a crime lab in Morton, Ill., where students had the opportunity
to observe professional forensic scientists. "It was interesting to see what we learn
in biology classes applied to real life," said Kate Houser, a junior biology and chemistry
double major who registered for the class because she is considering a career in forensic
science. According to Catalano, at the lab, students saw a wide variety of applications
of forensic science, "from ballistics to DNA to chemistry techniques."
This is not the first time that IWU has offered a class in the field of forensic science.
In 1985, Forrest Frank, former associate professor of chemistry, introduced a popular
course titled "Chemistry and Crime." In 1989, a sabbatical took Frank to London,
where he applied his knowledge of forensic chemistry to the Serious Crimes Unit at
Scotland Yard. The course resumed upon Frank's return to IWU and he continued to
teach it even after his retirement in 1999.
So why has the subject matter been re-introduced this year? IWU is not the only
university adding courses in forensic science recently. Over the last five years,
many large state universities have added forensic science programs or have developed
their existing programs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected a 13 percent
increase in forensic technicians entering the workforce from 2000 to 2010. The catalyst
behind this increased interest among students is likely TV shows such as CBS's hit
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, which have put forensic science in the spotlight like never before.
According to Catalano, however, TV shows do not accurately portray the way forensic
science is used to solve crimes and are attracting many people to the field who may
not have a sufficient background in science. "What I wanted to do with this class
was to provide students with a foundation in biology, with molecular and population
genetics [the study of how frequently certain genetic variations occur within a given
population], and delve into some of the issues that are important and interesting
for that kind of work," she said.
"Look at all the hot topics that were issues of the presidential election. They were
all issues of science: evolution, stem cell research, even abortion to a certain extent,"
Catalano explained. "If students understand what we do in this class, then they can
use that as a foundation to understand other pressing issues."
Contact: Rebecca Welzenbach or Meg Dubuque, (309) 556-3181