It’s no secret that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are growing in popularity and becoming a big deal to everyone, including people who are blind or visually impaired. Alexis Read is one individual who is especially interested in forensic science.

Alexis Read sitting at desk holding a framed certificate

CareerConnect Mentor, Alexis Read’s Experience in Forensic Science

Have you ever watched CSI or NCIS and thought the people working in the lab were doing really neat jobs? I became fascinated with forensic science after reading “House Rules” by Jodi Picoult in March of 2012. The main character, Jacob Hunt, has a great knowledge of all things forensic. Reading about his area of interest sparked something within me, a long dormant spark of interest in science.

I read many works about forensic science, both fiction and nonfiction, after completing “House Rules”. When I moved to Arizona in November of 2012, I discovered that there were other people who shared my interest. This interest has led to some very unique experiences.

In May of 2013, a friend in the biology department of Arizona State University told me about an experience the Phoenix Police Department was hosting called the CSI Experience. She knew of my interest and encouraged me to apply. I did and was accepted.

Prior to attending the event, I drew up a list of accommodations I would need in order to participate fully in the experience. I requested that demonstrations be verbalized with clear directional words as well as an electronic copy of the PowerPoint presentation. I should have alerted the staff that I might request to touch items that were being shown visually, but I did not and this caused some confusion later in the program.

We attended the event on June 14. It was a four hour event hosted at the Phoenix Crime Lab. I learned much about forensic science from attending the event, lessons that helped increase my understanding of terms and concepts I had only read about.

After we were introduced to the crime scene specialists, a video was shown describing what they do. These individuals are civilians employed by the police department. Their backgrounds are varied with some having criminal justice degrees and others coming to the job with other types of experience or training. All crime scene specialists receive six weeks of training and then several months of mentoring before doing their own casework.

After a break, they showed a short PowerPoint. The presentation showed what a typical day is like for a crime scene specialist team from arriving at the office to the completion of a case. There was also information about the various departments within the crime lab although much more information was provided on our tour.

The tour was quite interesting and informative. Having read a number of forensic books, I was familiar with many of the terms and concepts discussed. They did use a different term for electrostatic enhancement when lifting shoe prints, but I’ll get to that shortly.

The lab is so big with each department having their own area. Latent examiners have one office, while the forensic biology department appears to have a whole suite of offices. This was a hallway tour so there was some difficulty seeing into each area. With the verbal description that was provided, I was able to get a good idea of what each area did and what key items were being discussed.

At one point on the tour, there was a photo of a fuming chamber. It looks nothing like the fuming chamber Jacob from “House Rules” used. It’s the same concept of using superglue, but the chamber itself looks very different. I couldn’t get a good look at the photo. From what I could see, it’s a very large box that fits objects of multiple sizes. I’m familiar with the fuming process although I have never tried it at home.

It was at this point I asked about collecting prints from my cane. The specialist said that my cane would be a treasure trove of fingerprint and DNA evidence. They would have to use multiple colors of powder to lift prints because there are three different colors on the cane: red, white, and black. He even said that they would be able to lift evidence from the elastic cord, which I had never thought of. Of course, I handle that cord all the time when folding up the cane so there would be lots of evidence to gather from that small area.

The most interesting part of the tour was the shooting range they took us to. This is in the basement and has a number of different testing facilities. The range itself is this long narrow room. The specialist testing a weapon stands at one end of the room and shoots into a target that’s filled with Kevlar. The bullet sticks in this material so when it’s removed for testing, it’s in pristine condition.

At this point, one of the tour guides passed around this stringy material and had us try and figure out what it was. No one could figure it out. He then explained that the material is Kevlar. He went onto explain how Kevlar inserted into vests that officers wear is a life saver. I had been familiar with Kevlar vests from the Lincoln Rhyme books. He then held up a Kevlar vest for the group to see.

When there was an appropriate pause in the presentation, I asked to touch the vest. I think the person presenting was quite surprised because another staff member had to get his attention and get the vest from him. I had no idea that the Kevlar vest was so heavy! I can’t even describe the outer material, but I’ll do my best. It was a hard material that the officer would somehow put on probably under his or her uniform. If a perp shot at the officer, the bullet would hit the vest and leave a rather large bruise on the skin. The person describing the vest said it’s very painful to have a bullet hit the vest an officer is wearing.

There’s another area that’s a large tank filled with water. Ballistics tests are conducted in water to test certain properties of the weapon. I’d heard of this being done but couldn’t conceptualize how a gun could be fired into water for testing. With the explanation that was given, I have a much better understanding.

We then moved onto the hands-on portion of the evening, which was the most fun. Prior to trying to lift fingerprints from objects, a demonstration was provided of how to lift shoe prints.

One of the specialists explained that when shoe prints are collected from a scene, static electricity is used. He said that when a person walks outdoors and then comes into a home or building, tiny particles of dust or other matter are tracked in on the person’s shoes. With the use of electrostatic enhancement, the specialist can very easily lift the print. I forget the new term that was used so we’ll stick with Lincoln Rhyme’s term for now.

A very thin sheet of Mylar is placed on the area the print will be lifted from. Once the process is complete, there is a visual shoe print on the dark paper. This paper is then photographed, and the photo is used for evidence. They said that the print will last about 72 hours on the actual Mylar material.

The final activity of the evening was lifting fingerprints from soda cans. This was harder than I imagined it would be. Jacob Hunt makes it look so easy!

The first step is to lightly dust the desired area with black powder. If too much powder is used, the specialist would carefully remove the excess. According to my colleague, she could see either full or partial prints on the area we had dusted. I wasn’t able to see anything until the prints were transferred to a white card.

The next step in the process is to carefully place a piece of duct tape over the area we had dusted. Once the tape is lifted, the prints are visible on the tape. This tape is then placed on a white card for storage or photographing. I was able to see something when the tape was placed on the white card, but the prints were still too small to see bifurcations, loops, whorls, or arches.

All in all, the evening was a success. I learned much and was able to make connections between what I had read in books and what is done in the field. Much of what I read in Jeffery Deaver’s series is identical to what is done in the real world. Contrast this to how forensic science is portrayed on TV. It’s no wonder juries expect magic from the crime lab. TV makes it look easy when in fact, it’s tiring, detailed, and time consuming work. The crime scene specialists are civilians and have no arresting powers unlike what is shown on TV.

There are also specialties within the lab. Unlike what is shown on TV, one specialist doesn’t analyze all types of evidence. In fact, evidence analysis doesn’t even take place out in the field. It’s all done at the crime lab in specific areas depending on the type of evidence being analyzed.

My main learning goal for the CSI experience was to match tactile experiences with concepts that were described in forensic books I had read. This experience did much to help fill in gaps of understanding.

I also have done work to render fingerprint images into tactile form. Working in close proximity to an alternative format production lab has its benefits! One of my colleagues was able to blow up a photo of my thumb print I emailed her. She then ran the image through the Picture Image Enhancer machine. I now had a tactile rendering of my fingerprint so that I could begin to develop a basic understanding. I’m nowhere near a certified latent print examiner!

I’ve also had the opportunity to assist in teaching basic forensic science to youth who are blind or visually impaired. The same friend who went with me to the Phoenix crime lab works with a local agency for the blind to provide science education to their students on a monthly basis. November’s theme was forensic science.

Students learned about the different types of fingerprints as well as paw prints. Each student made a plaster paw print from tactile models provided by the science teacher and her graduate student. I had never seen a dog or cat paw print so even I found this part of the program educational.

The main lesson for students, parents, and professionals is to ensure that you, your children, or even your students are receiving hands-on exposure to concepts presented in textbooks or the media. When I began reading about forensic science, I had no understanding beyond the basics of concepts in this area. My understanding slowly began to change so that I could have intelligent conversations with others about topics in the area.

Individuals who are blind or visually impaired also may encounter times in which their understanding of a concept is inaccurate. I’ve had several of these experiences in my forensic journey. The first experience was related to ninhydrin. This is a reagent that is used to lift latent prints from paper or other porous surfaces. In “House Rules,” Jacob relates an episode of CrimeBusters, a fictional TV show, in which the CSI uses ninhudrin to lift a print from a coupon. There is no further description of this reagent, so I developed my own idea of what ninhydrin is. My idea was that it was a goopy substance that the CSI rubbed on the area he or she wished to obtain a print from. I was still new to forensic science at this time. Later, I read another novel by Michael Connelly in which the detective, Harry Bosch, talks about spraying ninhydrin on the surface he wished to lift a print from. It was one of those “Aha!” moments that it all became clear to me. In thinking about it further, of course the CrimeBuster character wouldn’t rub ninhydrin on her sample as it would destroy the print.

The point of this narrative is that when you think you have an understanding of a concept, check to ensure the understanding is accurate. If the understanding is inaccurate, as it was for me, do what you can to correct the understanding even if this means touching the object in question. I didn’t have ready access to ninhydrin so touching this chemical was impossible. Thanks to Detective Bosch, my misunderstanding was cleared up.

I’ve learned much in the months I’ve studied forensic science, both about myself and the opportunities for careers for those who have an interest or aptitude for science. In looking back over my K-12 education, I was never encouraged to study math or science beyond the requirements for graduation. Had science been adapted for the visually impaired and lessons related to the real world, I wonder whether my career path would have been any different. At this point, I don’t know if I’ll go back to school for a degree in forensic science as I’m well established in my field of employment. Learning more about it and teaching it to others who are blind or visually impaired is more of a hobby for me than a source of income.

Where Are They Now?

She’s back at it again! Forensic science enthusiast, Alexis Read, got the opportunity to attend the Leon County Sheriff’s Office Citizens Academy this year. Discover how Alexis learned more about crime-solving techniques, the SWAT team, and got the chance for some hands-on fun in her latest story.

Getting Hands-On with Forensic Science: Alexis Read’s Adventure at Citizens Academy

Alexis Read with her guide dog looking at the camera at a graduation ceremony

Have you ever wondered how sheriff’s deputies determine whether a crime has been committed? Have you ever wondered how evidence from a crime scene is preserved? If you answered yes to either of these questions, read on for a description of the Leon County Sheriff’s Office Citizens Academy.

I first heard about this opportunity on an app used by my neighborhood. A message was posted describing the ten-week class and encouraging interested individuals to apply. Some of the topics that would be covered included a SWAT demonstration, an opportunity to ride along with a deputy, and the opportunity to shoot some of the high powered weapons. After reading through the information, I had a strong desire to apply.

Before submitting the application, I contacted the lieutenant in charge of the Academy to discuss some of the concerns I had due to my low vision and my dog guide. My main concerns were how the staff would feel about someone with vision loss participating in the class as well as whether I would be able to participate in all of the activities. Lieutenant Nancy Burns could not have been nicer or more receptive to my interest in the class. We discussed some of the activities that were planned. During the course of the conversation, she mentioned another individual who is visually impaired who had participated in the class a number of years ago. Knowing someone else had gone before me to blaze the trail sealed the deal. The next day, I completed my application and faxed it to the office. About two weeks later, I received an acceptance letter.

Most of the classes were held at the Leon County Sheriff’s Office headquarters. I used Dial-a-Ride to get to class as it started at 6:30 p.m. Since the class ended at 9:30, I used Uber for the first few classes until I connected with someone who lived close to me. Transportation was the easy part to figure out. What was more challenging for me was keeping my guide dog out of harm’s way in some of the classes.

Each week, we covered a different topic related to the sheriff’s office operations. The first week was an introduction to the command staff including the Sheriff. As the Sheriff was speaking about crime statistics, my dog let out the loudest yawn or groan I’ve ever heard. He then proceeded to roll around on his back and kick his legs in the air. Apparently, he was not impressed with the statistics.

After that, we started to have more group participation and hands-on activities. There were several portions of the class that were highlights for me, so I will describe those portions. I will also describe any adaptations that were made for my visual impairment or use of a guide dog.

During the crime scene session, no adaptations needed to be made for my guide dog. The instructors provided more description than what is probably typical. I was able to lift prints using black powder from an object and place them on lifting tape. These prints were then transferred to a piece of white paper. Unfortunately, I was unable to see the details in the prints. I could see there were prints on the paper, but the arches, loops, and whorls were very difficult for me to see.

While we were in the crime scene area, one of the instructors described the fuming chamber. This is a large chamber that is used to show prints on an object. The chamber is about five feet tall and has components inside for heat, humidity, and the object. There are chemicals in super glue that when they interact with oils from human skin will raise prints on the object to a whitish color. These prints can then be lifted in the way described above.

I had read about this process in one of my favorite books, “House Rules” by Jodi Picoult. The main character used the same process to make prints visible, but he used a fish tank. I asked about this and was told that the sheriff’s office used to use a fish tank before the purchase of this specialized chamber. This tank was then donated to another county.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I was able to spend some one-on-one time with the crime scene staff that I got a better understanding of these concepts. I met with two staff members, John, who oversaw crime scene and also participated in the dive team, and the latent print expert, Felicia.

This one-on-one time was arranged by Lieutenant Burns as it was determined the ride along would be unsafe for me to participate in. Since I have an interest in forensic science, we both agreed this was a suitable replacement. I was perfectly fine with this accommodation as I feel I got much more out of this time than I might have gotten out of the ride along.

During my meeting with John, we discussed a number of different topics. These topics included whether someone with a disability could perform his work as well as ways weapons were tested in the lab. We discussed the fact that there are many visual aspects to his job such as searching for evidence and identifying evidence. We also discussed the training one must undergo to be hired in his position. If someone wants to work in the lab, John advised that getting a degree in forensic science would be best. If someone wanted to perform his job, which is not related to the lab, no degree in forensic science is required.

I then met with Felicia who has been at the sheriff’s office for many years. She has been the latent print examiner for 18 years. She described more about what she does and allowed me to see the computer she uses up close. I was able to see the lines she draws to determine similarities between latent prints. I was very surprised that I could even see that because of how difficult it was for me to see the prints on the white paper.

During my time with Felicia, she used the LiveScan machine to take my prints, a computer terminal where you can place each of your fingers as the print is taken. She printed out a set for me to keep, which is a fun keepsake from class.

SWAT day was a very exciting experience. The SWAT team conducted a demo from beginning to end. The Captain did a fantastic job of describing everything as it was taking place. He even warned us when to cover our ears before a gunshot or explosion.

Taking a guide dog to SWAT demo is not a good idea because of all of the noise. My guide dog was perfectly content to be cared for by one of his favorite people while I was away.

After the SWAT demo, the officers provided information and demos of the weapons used in law enforcement. Examples of weapons demonstrated included a glock and M-4 with and without a suppressor.

We then had the opportunity to shoot some of these weapons on the range. I was given the chance to shoot an M4 with a suppressor. Each student was paired with an individual instructor as some of us were very new at this whole thing. Having that one-on-one instruction made me feel much better. Doing this with only a few instructors for the group would have made me very uncomfortable.

There were three students at a time on the range, each working with their individual instructor. I was paired with a member of the SWAT team who was very good and patient through the entire process. He had much to contend with as I had never even held a large weapon, let alone pulled a trigger. I had to commend his patience as I was a little bit afraid of the experience. In fact, before we even started with our instructors, I got cold feet and was going to back out. When other classmates were shooting, I regained my confidence and opted to participate with the class.

The instructor explained where to point the weapon and reminded me many times to keep my finger away from the trigger until I was ready to shoot. Until I was absolutely ready, the gun was on safety for everyone’s protection.

Lieutenant Burns was also there and stood right behind me with her hand on my shoulder. I jumped every time a gun was fired even though we were all wearing ear protection. Once I was absolutely ready to fire the weapon, my instructor guided me step-by-step through the process of locating the trigger and pressing it gently. As soon as I pressed the trigger, the gun fired, and I was nearly on the ground. I might have been on the ground had Lieutenant Burns not been behind me to hold me up. A friend who watched the video says I regained my footing very quickly.

I was then instructed to change the setting to semi. This means that when you press the trigger once, multiple bullets are released very quickly. I changed the setting and was directed to press the trigger gently. As soon as I did, bang, bang, bang! I believe I may have hit the target at least once, but I didn’t get confirmation on that day. It wasn’t until weeks later someone told me I actually hit the target.

Shooting the M4 gave me a sense of confidence and empowerment. I don’t plan to purchase a gun anytime soon, but just knowing that I’ve had the experience helped me realize that I can do anything even with a visual impairment. If my experience with Leon County Sheriff’s Office Citizens Academy has given me any life lessons, it is that even with a visual impairment, anything is possible. Dream it, and it will happen.

The last experience I want to describe is the day we each got to fire the taser. At the beginning of the class, we were gathered in the main classroom with the field training officer (FTO). The FTO described each piece of equipment on his belt and even tested the taser so we could hear it. My guide dog was very afraid of that sound as evidenced by his shaking and trembling. I was unsure how he would react, so I spoke with several friends and an instructor at his school. Everyone believed that he would be fine, so I went into that experience having an idea that he would handle it well. How wrong we all were! The FTO observed the dog’s reaction and agreed not to demonstrate the taser in his presence. When it was my group’s turn to work with the taser, another classmate took my dog while her group was doing another exercise.

I was one of the last people in my group to fire the taser. The FTO who worked with me was very patient as he knew this was a new experience for all of us. He oriented me to the device before directing me to place my finger near the trigger. When he said it was safe to press the trigger, I moved my finger and gently pressed it as I had done with the firearm. Nothing happened, but I wasn’t squeezing it hard enough. When the FTO explained what I was doing wrong, I squeezed a bit harder, and zing! The cartridge flue towards the dummy and landed somewhere in the body. We all heard the crackle of electricity for five seconds.

If others with a visual impairment are interested in participating in this experience, here are a few pointers to consider:

  • If you are considering applying for this class, read the information carefully as the brochure and website will give you a good idea of what activities to expect. They can’t describe everything, but they will hit on the highlights. For example, I didn’t know we would get to use the tasers.
  • Discuss with the person in charge any accommodations you may need either before the class or as the class is progressing.
  • If it is safe and you are unable to see what is presented, ask the instructor if you may touch the object. I did this several times during the class and came away with a much better idea of what was covered than had I not requested to feel the object.
  • If you have a guide dog, consider carefully how your dog will do with the planned activity. For example, it’s not a good idea to take the dog on the jail tour or bring him to SWAT day. Consider also how your dog will react to other dogs if the academy has a demo with K-9 scheduled.
  • After the lesson if you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact the person in charge via email. I did this several times, and Lieutenant Burns was happy to put me in touch with that particular instructor. I emailed the instructor requesting a description of the demonstration, and within a few hours, received a very well written description.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in the Citizens Academy and learned much. Taking this class has given me a better appreciation and understanding of what law enforcement professionals do on a daily basis. It’s not just taking the bad guys to jail. There’s much to consider from making a stop to arresting a suspect. I would urge anyone who has an interest in this area to consider applying for the citizens academy with your local police or sheriff’s department.

Alexis Read, CVRT

Adult Program Specialist
Lighthouse of the Big Bend