Ed Strimlan, M.D., trains Point Park University students to preserve fingerprints at murder scenes, analyze DNA samples in the lab and look for clues next to barely-cold corpses.
It’s fascinating stuff. But the forensic science he teaches is nothing like the plot-twisting, tidy heroics on the hit CBS show CSI. “It is like saying Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is like Hershey’s,” said Strimlan, a former chief forensic investigator who coordinates Point Park’s forensic science program.
Strimlan should know how to distinguish primetime drama from reality. In his 21 years with the Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner, he investigated deaths ranging from the 1994 crash of USAir Flight 427 in Hopewell Township to the more commonplace tragedy of a toddler choking on a toy. Since 2010, he has grown the University’s forensic science program to more than 50 students, increased basic science requirements for the program and established an on-campus crime scene house where students simulate scenes, and practice looking for clues and collecting evidence.
Strimlan’s real-world experiences lend the simulations authenticity. “He can make any kind of crime scene,” said student Matt Coleman. “Dr. Strimlan knows science. He knows anatomy.” Recent graduate Caitlyn Ehmann agreed. “He makes you open your eyes and look at all the angles.” After an internship at the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office, Ehmann wants to be a DNA analyst.
Unlike the television heroes of CSI, real investigators rarely work alone. In fact, Strimlan said the show compresses into one hour what 40 people normally do over about six months. Real investigations rely on interactions among specialists. For example, the forensic investigator collects evidence, the pathologist performs the autopsy, the serologist analyzes the blood spatter and the odontologist investigates bite marks. The range of specialties is often welcome news to students. “They don’t have to pick up a body or cut it open if they don’t want to,” Strimlan said.
He also exposes high school students to the range of forensic science through Point Park’s CSI summer camp in which participants get hands-on experience in the crime scene house and fingerprint lab, and play “Forensics Jeopardy.” As Ehmann puts it, “(Dr. Strimlan) has all these real-world experiences. He is so much more interesting than someone who reads from a book.”
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