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Mad About Forensics

Students are clamoring for courses in forensics. Michigan State University has the oldest forensics program in the country. These days, it's also the biggest.

"We've had a death, there's a gun, obviously some evidence," says forensic entomologist Richard Merritt to his class in a field at MSU. He is teaching a course called "Bugs and Bodies."

"And it's your job to determine the post-mortem interval or the time between fly colonization and discovery, which is tonight," he continues.

In the two years since "C.S.I." began captivating audiences, Merritt's class has become so popular, he's had to limit the number of students.

"My students, in general, are very outdoor oriented, very willing to take an adventure. That's what I like about them. I usually try and pick students that have a little bit of that risk factor in them, just to take on whatever we find," says Merritt.

They're daring, and many are fans of the show.

"I like it, I love it! I watch it all the time," says student Wayne Jenkins with a grin. "All the time."

"I've always been interested in solving puzzles and reading crime novels. And I was just amazed at the things you could do with science. And how you can apply it to solve crimes," adds student Kelly Greenough.

The introductory forensics course at Michigan State turned away students after reaching a maximum of 400. And professor Jay Siegel says the majority of the students in his class is now female.

"If you poll people about the most important problems in our country and in our world, with women, crime is very high up. You've got women scientists now who have a chance to do something about a pressing social problem. It's almost irresistible," says Siegel.

The forensic chemist says the science portrayed on "C.S.I." is the real deal, especially when comes to collecting evidence.

"It's not all clean and pristine. Some of it's dirty and smelly and old, and I think they've done a pretty good job of portraying that," he notes.

Even "C.S.I.'"s attractive cast may be closer to reality than you think.

"I think science does have a stereotype of everybody being a nerd, wearing glasses with tape across the rims and stuff. And I think it's really nice to see people that look like real people doing real science," says very attractive student Andrea Halvorson.

The fly larva on professor Merritt's desk comes from a murder victim. Most of MSU's forensic staff consults regularly on criminal cases. But with the large number of students entering the specialty, is there enough work to go around?

"Oh yeah, oh yeah. Our students have no problems getting jobs. Many of our students are hired before they even finish their program," says Siegel.

And for you armchair detectives out there, a new CD ROM called "Clues in Crime" will soon be available in bookstores. The interactive program teaches methods of investigation using common items like hairspray and superglue.

Students say forensics is the one subject family and friends always ask about.

"Everyone gets really excited about it," says student Jamie Dunn.

"Oh yeah, my grandma thinks it's just like the TV stuff," affirms student Brandon Mauro.

"They say that sounds so cool, that sounds so neat. You'll have to tell me all about that. Or you'll have to sneak me into the lab sometime and let me see what goes on," adds Halvorson.

Graduates from MSU's forensics program are working for the FBI, the DEA, the ATF and at independent crime labs. Some are employed with the Michigan State Police, while others have gone on to medical school. So, there's a whole world of possibilities awaiting graduates.