Zena Urban is only 23 years old, but the West Virginia University student is already well aware of her own mortality and just how fragile life can be, in general.
Taking part in 30 autopsies over the past few weeks will do that to you, the senior from Williamsburg, Va., says with a rueful chuckle.
Urban, who is studying forensic biology in WVU s acclaimed Forensic and Investigative Sciences program, is completing a unique internship this summeruniquely grisly, some might even sayat the Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner.
The bustling lab just outside Des Moines is more often than not the first stop on the way to the final resting place for those befallen by fatal circumstances in the Hawkeye State.
Murder and drowning victims.
And people who thought they didnt need to wear a seatbeltsince they were just riding in the backseat.
It makes me appreciate things more,Urban said, as she readied for another days work in the lab. Urban is aiming for a career as a forensic pathologist. Shes spending her days in Iowa drawing blood and fluids during the autopsies, and weighing the organs of the victims that so often figure into the investigations surrounding their demise.
Its really everything that medical student does,she said,except that youre doing it from the forensic angle. Once you get into it at this level, you learn pretty quickly whether you want to do it or not.
You also learn something else, she said.
You learn that tomorrows not guaranteed,she said.Death is just something thats going to happen, so you should celebrate every moment.
But in moderation, of course, shes quick to addsince she has seen her share of drunken driving fatalities this past summer.
One thing is guaranteed, though: Urban is earning a degree in a program that has given WVU an international reputation in law enforcement. The internships alone, from crime labs in Cleveland, Texas and Philadelphia, to the famed McCrone Associates in Westmont, Ill. are a testament to that, said Dr. Keith Morris, interim director of the program.
Morris, too, has international connections. Hes the former director of South Africas national crime lab system, and he came to the States and WVU solely on the strength of the forensic program here.
Other top professionals have joined him. WVU s forensic efforts have been featured in outlets from The Chronicle of Higher Education toTrue Hollywood Storieson cable televisions E! Entertainment Network.
The program in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences boasts more than 500 majors from 35 states and five countries.
And students learn the trade in world-class facilities that include threecrime scenehouses, a forensic garage andburial plotsarea to cover all facets of crime investigation.
The internships, as Morris said, make it even better.
They play a crucial role in the education of future scientists,Morris said.The internships provide context for academics, because our students get to really apply the theories they have been taught. Its like a light gets snapped on.
Travis Warner says his internship at McCrone Associates will shine like a beacon on his resume. The 21-year-old junior from Charleston is a budding forensic examiner with a bent for geology.
McCrone Associates is where groundbreaking research is done on sleuthing related to, well, the ground.
A lot of times soil is overlooked in police investigations,Warner said.But you track in stuff on your shoes, and you pick it up in your tire treads and pants cuffs. You track carpet fibers into fields. You leave a trail whether you realize it or not.
Amy Richardson is happy the trail to her career as a forensic chemist is starting at WVU . The 22-year-old senior with a dual major in forensic chemistry and chemistry is spending the summer in her hometown of Philadelphia, doing chemical analysis in the crime lab of the city police department.
She appreciates the opportunity, she said, and she also appreciates her education at WVU . Like the dirt on the soles of the shoes Warner was talking about, shes picked up a lot of knowledge in her classes here, she said.
From going to WVU , I already know a lot about the drug chemistry that other people can only learn on the job.
Shes also learned, she said with a laugh, not to take theCSIshows on television too seriouslymuch to consternation of her roommates back in Morgantown.
No one will watch them with me,she said.Im always talking back to the screen. Its like, �€~No, thats so fake. Thats not how they really do it.
The reason Urban wants to do it, she said, is simple. Shell get to bring justice and comfort to the people left behind.
Families just want to know what happened,she said.It could be a homicide or an accident, or if someone took his life by his own hand. They just want to know, and Ill have the chance to help them know. Being at WVU and being in this internship makes me want to do this job that much more.