Andrea Mendler said she knew she wanted to study forensic science the moment she saw her first episode of CSI at the age of 14.
“I knew immediately I belonged in a forensic lab doing something, anything, to help solve crimes, even after I found out that DNA results take much longer than just a commercial break,” she said.
The third-year Laurentian University forensic science student will soon get a chance to work in a real-life forensic DNA lab. Laurentian aims to have its own forensic DNA lab up and running by this time next year.
The Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corporation (NOHFC) has provided $245,500 to support the development of the lab.
Sudbury MPP Rick Bartolucci, who announced the funding at a March 11 press conference, said he's excited Laurentian is moving forward with the endeavour.
“Laurentian University continues to innovate and offer new educational and training opportunities to its students and to the broader community,” he said, in a press release.
“I am very pleased that the NOHFC could support the development of a new forensic DNA lab in Sudbury.”
Thanks to the funds, Laurentian has also been able to hire a new forensic science professor.
Michelle Bobyn is a forensic DNA expert who previously worked at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
A native of Ottawa, Ont., she said she'd visited Laurentian in the past while giving a guest lecture, and jumped at the chance to work at the university when she learned about the job opening.
The new forensic DNA lab will be a real asset to students, as it gives them hands-on experience, Bobyn said.
“I'm hoping that not only will it function as an accredited forensic DNA laboratory, but it will be a teaching laboratory for the students, to give them hands-on experience with DNA analysis,” she said.
“I've been doing lectures this fall. I'm finding it really difficult to convey what it all means and how it all comes together without showing them the equipment and how to do it.”
Once the new forensic DNA lab is accredited, it will offer fee-for-service DNA analysis for police investigations of crimes such as sexual assaults, assaults and homicides.
Bartolucci said the forensic DNA lab will be a fantastic tool for police in Northern Ontario and around the world. “The answer is undoubtedly, this will have a very, very positive impact on criminal investigations,” he said.
Laurentian and the Ontario Police College are also developing a partnership so that police students are able to get hands-on training in the forensic DNA lab.
While the NOHFC funds are greatly appreciated, they only cover part of the roughly $800,000 it's costing the university to set up the lab and hire Bobyn, said Patrice Sawyer, the university's vice-president of research.
Laurentian has decided to invest in the program, as it was identified in the university's strategic plan as on of its “signature” programs, he said.
The three original professors in Laurentian's forensic science department — Brian Donohue, James Watterson and Scott Fairgrieve — were involved in developing the proposal for the forensic DNA lab and seeking out government funding.
“We are quite pleased with the engagement the faculty members have shown,” Sawyer said. “It's one thing to look at administration to provide equipment and funds, but they went for it.”
Donohue said forensic DNA analysis is the “gold standard” of forensic science, so it was important that Laurentian's program teach the discipline.
DNA analysis generates more certainty in solving criminal cases than any of the other forensic specialities, he said.
“For our program to move to the world-class status where we feel we are now, we needed to have a DNA specialist, and we needed a world-class lab,” Donohue said.
“We can't do it half. We need to do it full. With the funding from the heritage fund, we were able to provide Michelle with a state-of-the-art, superb lab. We won't take a backseat to anybody.”