Scientific evidence points to success in West Virginia
By Catherine Zacchi
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – The drop of DNA left at a crime scene; the digital ghost of a file wiped from a computer hard drive; in the right hands, these microscopic materials reveal vital clues.
Training those hands is the mission of Dr. Terry Fenger, director of the Marshall University Forensic Science Center (MUFSC) in Huntington. Students and law enforcement professionals study DNA analysis, forensic chemical or computer forensics to learn the science of methodical gathering and analysis of evidence.
Fenger earned his Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University. In 1979, he moved to West Virginia to join Marshall University, where he has served as chair of the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Molecular Genetics at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. He now serves as chair of MUFSC.
“I’m an example of someone who has come here to stay,” Fenger said.
In 1994, Marshall created the Forensic Science Graduate Program, one of only seven such Master of Science degree programs in the country. The program graduated its first class of Forensic Science students in 1997. In 1999, the program moved into its new facilities at Fairfield Stadium, where the real-life events depicted in the movie We Are Marshall took place. The film focuses on the aftermath following the 1970 plane crash that took the lives of 75 members of the flight crew and Marshall University football team.
“Our DNA lab is in the old locker room of the football stadium,” Fenger said. “The Forensic Science Center renovated the locker room and preserved the scoreboard. Our lobby has a memorial with one of the original lockers and a jersey bearing the number ’75.’”
An accredited paternity testing lab, MUFSC provides services for both civil and criminal applications, including child support, inheritance, adoption, immigration and sexual assault. In one National Institute of Justice (NIJ) project, MUFSC works with three cities — Miami-Dade (Fla.), Charleston (S.C.) and Huntington (W.Va.) — to determine whether faster DNA results from property crime scenes affect arrest rates.
“Normally, law enforcement agencies may wait a year to get the results — if the crime samples are tested at all,” Fenger said. “We have produced results for Huntington and Charleston in 60 days; for Miami-Dade in 30 days.”
In 2007, MUFSC hosted the Mid-Atlantic Association of Forensics Sciences (MAAFS) conference, which brought hundreds of visitors to Huntington.
“People who come here for the training like getting away from the hustle and bustle of the big city,” Fenger said. ”They like the convenience and accessibility of our downtown, the restaurants, shopping and the Keith-Albee Theatre.”
Fenger credits West Virginia’s high technology development to support from academic, private and governmental leaders. For example, he said, “Senator Robert C. Byrd has been an advocate of the Forensic Science Center and helped identify funding early on. Without that, we would not have the high technology capabilities we have.”
The state is investing $50 million in the research power of Marshall and West Virginia University through the new West Virginia Research Trust, also known as “Bucks for Brains.” The schools have five years to match the state funds by raising an equal sum in private and corporate donations. This accumulated intellectual capital generates discoveries that evolve into marketable products, business spinoffs and jobs.
“None of this would be possible if we didn’t have the human resources available through the academic program to hire highly qualified individuals who remain in West Virginia,” he said. “This is where they want to be.”