Sept. 1, 2022 — Students slowly move through the woods, using what looks like a small lawnmower with a screen attached to methodically search below the soil. This piece of equipment, called a ground penetrating radar, or GPR, is one of the tools commonly used by forensics teams to explore crime scenes for evidence below the surface.
The GPR used in this hands-on lab course, offered as a component of the UF College of Medicine William R. Maples Center for Forensic Medicine’s forensic medicine distance education program, gives students from across the country a chance to gain real-world experience using tools that are essential in medico-legal death investigations as part of their education in forensic medicine.
The department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine’s program, the first in the world to offer a master’s degree for this discipline that can be completed 100% online, has experienced significant growth as hundreds of students each year complete classes preparing them for careers as medico-legal death investigators, crime scene investigators, medical examiners, coroners or autopsy technicians.
The forensic medicine distance education program launched in 2018 after the Maples Center enjoyed nearly a decade of success within with other distance education programs. The first program began in 2009 in veterinary forensic sciences, which then expanded into wildlife forensic sciences and shelter medicine, said Jason Byrd, Ph.D., a professor and the associate director of the Maples Center.
“Nobody offered that kind of program before us,” Byrd said. “Our veterinary forensics sciences graduate certificate soon grew into a master’s concentration, and it later morphed to include diversified species, due to student concern about stopping worldwide animal poaching as well as companion and large animal abuse, cruelty and neglect.”
Lerah Sutton, Ph.D., assistant director of the Maples Center, was one of the first graduate students to participate in the veterinary forensic sciences graduate certificate at UF as the first recipient of the veterinary forensic sciences graduate assistantship. While pursuing a multidisciplinary doctoral degree at UF across several forensic disciplines, she developed the plan for the forensic medicine distance education program, creating a new master’s program at UF focusing medico-legal death investigations. Sutton has been the program director for the forensic medicine program and an instructor of numerous forensic courses since its launch in 2018.
By offering these courses completely online, Sutton said, working professionals have a chance to earn credentials that would allow them to advance in their field.
“It offers a lot more flexibility for students, many of whom are working professionals, to get an education in a way that doesn’t disrupt what they’re doing in their 40-hour day job,” she said.