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Mason students outdoors at simulated crime scene

Mason students work a “crime scene” as part of their studies in the Forensic Science Program. Director Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI criminal profiler, leads the program, which emphasizes real-world training and experience.

Doing the Time to Solve the Crime

Inch by inch, students carefully make their way around a grid on a muddy forensic excavation and research site on Mason’s Fairfax Campus. Their assignment: unearth evidence in a staged outdoor crime scene.

It’s the stuff of TV dramas. But these students’ rain-soaked efforts deliver real-life forensic science training.

Demand for forensic scientists is skyrocketing, as is the interest in high-quality training. Mason’s College of Science has responded.

The Forensic Science Program, which began by offering a graduate certificate in 2009, added a master’s degree in 2010, and a bachelor’s degree in 2011. More initiatives are planned, which will make Mason’s Forensic Science Program stand apart from others.

Retired FBI criminal profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole, who became director in 2015, was once one of the most senior FBI profilers in the elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, which inspired the TV show Criminal Minds. She and other faculty members developed creative new ventures, such as a concentration in Forensic/Biometric Identity Analysis,. When it starts this fall, it will be the only one of its kind in the nation. 

“I can’t underscore enough how our training sets us apart. When our students come here, they don’t just read a book or two about forensic science. They get their hands dirty. They work with real equipment. It’s this kind of hands-on experience that makes a difference when you apply for a job.”

— Mary Ellen O’Toole, Forensic Science Program Director

The unit also has a partnership with the Northern Laboratory of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science facility in Prince William County, where real crime-scene evidence is submitted for analysis. Beginning this fall, College of Science students are taking lecture courses at the facility and train at its DNA and controlled-substance laboratories.

Every aspect of Mason’s Forensic Science education is relentlessly realistic. Hands-on labs are integrated with lectures. Guest speakers help students explore a range of career opportunities, such as chemistry, DNA analysis, and crime scene investigation, and they learn how these specialists interact as a team.