Patricia Elswick, who hails from Mt. Hope, W.Va., was a little nervous as she entered the crime lab in Southern California for the first day of her internship.

But the West Virginia University Forensic and Investigative Sciences student got a verdict of instant respectwith a side order of awe to go with it.

A lot of the veteran lab techs were pretty amazed that I came in already knowing the same things they did,she said.It made me feel even better about my education. They kept saying things like, �€~I was five years on the job before I even started to learn that,or, �€~Howd you pick that up already?I told them thats just how we do things at WVU .

Elswick wants to be a high-tech sleuth who solves crimes by way of the fingerprints and other markers criminals can leave on documents at the scene of a crime.

At 23, she already holds bachelors degrees in forensic science and biology to go with her sociology minor. And this fall, shell enter into Forensic and Investigative Sciencesinaugural masters program to fine-tune her skills and instincts even more.

Given the success of the program so far, its probably an open-and-shut case that shell walk off campus after graduation and right into a crime lab like the one in Orange County when it comes time for a full-time job.

Training crime professionals thoroughly and correctly under the best conditions possible was the modus operandi of the program that was set up in 1997, when it was borne out of a partnership with the FBI .

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the Mountain States senior lawmaker on Capitol Hill, secured the funding for the endeavor that capitalized on the close proximity of a major fingerprint processing center just 40 miles down Interstate 79 from Morgantown in the rolling hills of Clarksburg.

There were just four students enrolled in classes for that fall semester 11 years ago, but today that pioneering quartet has grown to 500-plus, making it one of the most popular (and fastest-growing) majors on campus. Its also one of just 20 in the country to be fully accredited by the Forensic Science Educational Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) and provides research and resources to forensic laboratories across the country and the world.

The programs reputation, plus prime-time television, has a lot to do with that. But incoming majors be forewarned: As Elswick testifies, its just as much about textbooks and the lab than it isCSIglamour and glitz. At least at first.

You do have to be prepared to work,she said.My biology degree helped, but it wasnt like I just coasted through. Thats why its so rewarding when you get done.

Students dig in for a rigorous curriculum heavy on math and hard sciences. It rivals any pre-medicine track of study, but it isnt all bench work and books. There is an eventual payoff heavy on thecoolfactor that makes those TV shows so appealing.

Because once they get those core classes out of the way, majors jump into the act of learning state-of-the-art sleuthing techniques on the latest equipment and diagnostic tools that are right off the soundstages of those prime-time crime dramas.

Plus, they get to work their way through a host of graphic scenarioseverything from drive-by shootings to unattended deaths to husband-wife spats that turn deadlyin three innovativeCrime Scenehouses and a forensic garage on the Evansdale campus.

You wont get better training or a better education,she said.I think its the best program in the world.

She just might be right about that, too.

The programs growing international reputation is what got its director Dr. Keith Morris here. The forensic professional formerly headed South Africas national crime lab system and now says he wouldnt be anywhere else but Morgantown and WVU .

We have the finest program, the finest students and the finest facilities in the world,Morris asserts.And I can say that.

It can also be said that future standards for the sleuthing industry are being established at WVU , by way of a sibling effort to the Forensic and Investigative Sciences Program.

The Forensic Science Initiative is putting a literal thumbprint on the profession, even, with the help of WVU s Bureau of Business and Economic Research and College of Business and Economics.

The Initiative launched anefficiency investigationof the business of solving crimes in 2006.

Initiative director Max Houck, a former FBI forensic investigator who helped identify victims of Sept. 11 and the Branch Davidian standoff, is the head coordinator of that effort that looks at the business of bringing bad guys to justice.

Emphasis onbusiness,he said.

Forensic laboratories are very much like businesses,Houck explains,in that there are costs, personnel, and increasing demands for their productsreports and testimony.

And, like all businesses, he said, they are propelled by bottom-line motivations of productivity, budgets and turnaround times concerning the processing of evidence.

But the industry is also hamstrung by a patchwork quilt of accountability, where such efficiency measurements can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, or crime lab to crime lab , if they exist at all.

Such inconsistencies, Hock said, are made even more complicated by the so-calledCSI effectwhich owes itself to the popularity of those aforementioned TV dramas.

Forensic science is now a pop culture commodity, which means more peoplepeople who get called to jury dutyknow about its techniques of DNA analysis and sophisticated reconstructions of events at the crime scene.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys, of course, know all about the CSI effect, Houck said, which is why forensic scientists in the U.S. are called to testify at 12 to 15 cases a year.

Today, were at the height of public awareness about this fascinating profession,Houck said.But that means were also facing challenges of resources, accountability, processes and management. Weve always adhered to quality and accuracy issues, but now were also looking the publics trust, turnaround issues and funding issues. If you can pardon a Sherlock Holmes analogy, the magnifying glass is on us.

Which is why WVU is taking the lead in the industry by drafting a universal treatise of productivity standards and practices to assist any laboratory, anywhere.

The College of B&E-based Center for Executive Education is also contributing on two high-profile projects to add to the mission:

  • COLOR : black; mso-layout-grid-align: none; mso-list: l0 level1 lfo1; tab-stops: list .5in”>The first is a collaboration with a national author for a textbook on business writing for the crime lab.
  • COLOR : black; mso-layout-grid-align: none; mso-list: l0 level1 lfo1; tab-stops: list .5in”>The second is a forensic management academy with an MBA -style program on the business side of sleuthing.

    Dr. Tom Witt, who directs WVU s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, sees the whole thing as common sense in an industry that is growing and growing.

    You can talk about the �€~health care industryand the �€~coal industry,Witt said,but you dont hear anything about the �€~forensic industry.Well, it needs to be defined, too, given the importance it has to society and the economy. And thats what were working on.