When you have a question, it’s always best to turn to a subject matter expert for answers. In our blog series, Ask An Expert, National University staff, faculty members, and alumni take turns answering challenging questions in their areas of expertise. This time we ask forensic scientist Stephanie Shappee about what’s on TV vs. what you really learn in a master’s in forensic science online.
When the TV show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation hit the airwaves, the popular prime-time drama captivated viewers everywhere. The weekly CBS series also served as a career inspiration for many people. Such was the case with Stephanie Shappee who earned a master’s in forensic science online at National University. Today, she examines evidence as part of the forensic science division of Montana’s State Crime Lab in Missoula, Montana.
For our Ask the Expert series we asked Shappee about her career — and how it compares to the television show that sparked her interest in forensic science.
Meet Stephanie Shappee: Starting a Career in Forensic Science
Stephanie says she was drawn to the field by watching the fictional Gil Grissom and his team investigate crime scenes in and near Las Vegas.
“I was 14, and I was absolutely fascinated,” she says of her affection for the show, CSI. She loved how a crime scene investigator could piece together who was there and how it was done by just by analyzing what was left behind.
Throughout high school, Shappee researched what it would take to get into the field of forensic science; she knew it was a competitive field and wanted to make sure she could get her foot in the door. She first earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and then explored graduate degrees.
“I saw the master’s in forensic science (online) program at National University and thought, ‘This is perfect! It has a little bit of everything,’” she says. She adds that at the time, she wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted to do with the master’s. But that changed when she saw the description for one class.
“When I saw the advanced fingerprinting course, a little bell went off,” she recalls.
Shappee maintained her interest in that specialty of forensics and that led her to Montana’s State Crime Lab. Falling under the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Justice, the lab is home to about a dozen units, including the medical examiner’s office, a toxicology unit, a DNA/serology lab, and a firearms section. Shappee is doing what she loves as a forensic scientist in the latent print/impression evidence department.
(Our previous blog post, “Crime Scene Investigator Training” offers more information about studying forensic science.)
On the Job: What You Do as a Forensic Technician
Shappee, who has been in Missoula for about two years, spends her days taking in and processing evidence. This entails developing impressions on items, taking and configuring photographs, and analyzing and comparing the prints she’s just processed with those that might already be in a database. Sometimes her job takes her to the morgue, where she assists the medical examiner with gathering impressions from a body, such as to help identify a victim.
Fingerprints may first come to mind when thinking of impression evidence, but Shappee explains that she can work “with anything that has friction ridges.” This means, as a forensic technician, she can also take impressions of joints, palms, footprints, and even footwear.
Although Shappee specializes in impressions, her coursework in National’s master’s in forensic science online program included pathology, toxicology, serology, digital and trace evidence, and other areas. This varied background helps her collaborate with colleagues, such as in cases where multiple teams need to work with the same piece of evidence. Understanding each others’ processes allows them to determine the order that will give them the best results — and lessen the chance for cross-contamination.
How a TV Crime Scene Investigator Differs from a Real-life Forensic Technician
Shappee explains one key difference between forensic investigation work on television shows and in actual labs: “I’d say 90% of the time it’s just me sitting at a computer looking at images.”
Unlike on TV, it’s usually not the same people gathering and analyzing the evidence. In her state, she explains, law enforcement officers with forensic investigation training are the ones in the field, documenting crime scenes and collecting evidence for people like Stephanie.
“We’re the lab rats,” she says. “We each usually have a specialty, and mine is in impressions…and the fingerprints aren’t as pretty or accurate as you see on TV.”
Shappee says she doesn’t find prints on every item she receives. Other times, it’s only a small portion of one. When it comes to processing, real life isn’t as lucky as on TV either. A fictitious crime scene investigator usually already has a hunch of who committed an act. When the prints are processed, a 100% match often comes up, proving the investigator’s theory. In her experience, though, many prints do not result in a match; in those cases, she registers them in the appropriate database (such as her state’s or the FBI’s). Sometimes it will be years before that same fingerprint gets a match.
“We just had an impression from a 2007 case hit last month,” she says. “It was an exciting moment at the lab, although the original analyst was not there to see it.”
The original CSI is set in Las Vegas, and most of the cases seemingly take place in and around that city. In comparison, aside from a small satellite lab in Billings, Shappee’s Missoula office processes evidence from in the entire state — the fourth-largest U.S. state in square miles. It’s a relatively small team covering an extremely large geographic territory.
Shappee enjoys her work and feels earning her master’s in forensic science online at National University prepared her well. If you’re also interested in a crime scene investigator or forensic technician career, visit our program page to learn more about our Master of Science in Forensic Sciences and other online degree options.
About our expert: Stephanie Shappee is a latent print analyst at the Montana State Crime Lab Forensics Division. She earned a Master of Science in Forensic Sciences at National University.