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Behind the Scenes

Creating a Database for Criminalistics Laboratory

When the Johnson County Sheriff’s Criminalistics Laboratory needs to identify ammunition used in a crime, examiners will refer to a database tested and compiled by Emporia State University graduate student Marah Carney of Emporia.

Carney, who had graduated with a bachelor of science in biology with emphasis in pre-medicine, now is working toward a master of science degree in forensic sciences. She spent the summer as an intern in the Firearms and Toolmarks section of the criminalistics laboratory Firearms and Toolmarks section of that department, where she tested, catalogued and created a reference library from almost 800 samples of ammunition for its Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS).

“The work I was doing was timed just right to get the majority of the ammunition database up and running,” Carney said. “When (examiners) go to input data into their case reports, all they have to do is scan a barcode for the reference sample they used. The information will automatically populate into their digital case report, and they don’t have to go hunting for the information themselves.”

Carney said she especially had enjoyed going through the old ammunition, trying to figure out the manufacturer from only a symbol or a couple of numbers stamped on the head.

“I gained a sense of satisfaction by researching topics like this, as I know that this knowledge will help me again someday in the future,” Carney said.

With only two scientists in the firearms and toolmarks section, building professional working relationships was simplified and gave her ample opportunities for hands-on shadowing in a variety of types of casework.

“I also got some first-hand experience with analyzing cartridge cases and bullets underneath the comparison microscope,” she said. “... It is a two-handed job that relies on muscle memory and precision movements. It reminds me of someone flying a jet airliner.”

Carney said that classroom instruction at Emporia State had prepared her quite well for “real-world application,” using skills in microscopy, scientific method, basic anatomy, chemistry and physics. Defending her scientific analyses and conclusions in classroom moot courts also gave her confidence that she could testify effectively in a real court, where forensic scientists must defend new methods or approaches in a Daubert hearing before a judge before they are accepted into the legal system.

The internship validated Carney’s decision to become a forensic scientist and showed her the profession is “not just for the ‘good ol’ boys.’”

“I’m excited to be part of this evolution and still maintain my foothold in the hard sciences,” she said. “I wouldn’t have traded my experience for anything.”