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Dr. Szymanski Goes to Washington
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
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It’s a fair assumption that few geologists have vials of fake blood in their office. David Szymanski does. For the assistant professor of natural and applied sciences, the liquid is a necessary ingredient for teaching a course in forensic science.
TV shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation have helped make the class a popular choice among undergraduates.
Putting aside the theatrics and yet-to-be-invented gadgetry of TV crime dramas, Szymanski knows the real-world application of forensics. This geologist by trade is also a practicing forensic scientist.
“They’re really linked together,” he explains. To understand geological processes, you must follow the flow of materials and how they transform. Geology is just “detective work on a different scale.”
This investigative bent led Szymanski to develop a forensic technique of his own, while working toward a master’s degree at Michigan State University in 2004. The process uses a laser to vaporize the samples of glass, then analyzes the fumes for trace elements. The proportions of these extremely sparse ingredients are akin to a chemical fingerprint, allowing two samples to be matched.
As Szymanski went on to pursue his doctorate, Michigan State Police tapped him to process samples for more than three dozen cases.
“When they couldn’t discriminate between an unknown glass sample and a sample from a crime scene using their techniques, they would send it to me,” says the professor, who also testified in court a few times.
His experience in the courtroom had an unexpected side effect – in the classroom. Talking to a jury, Szymanski says, “You realize where people’s science background comes from, and thus how you have to change your story to make it more intelligible.”
Explaining complex ideas is a central part of teaching science to nonscientists, his primary mission at Bentley.
Science, Business, Policy
Another of Szymanski’s goals may have an impact beyond the university. Hired at Bentley in 2008, he made a yearlong detour to Washington, D.C., working as a science adviser to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana. He helped draft natural-resource and energy policy, and consulted on other science-related matters.
Though challenging (“the Hill has even less tolerance than a jury does for any sort of ambiguity”) the work fueled Szymanski’s interest in bringing together science, business and policy. One result is a pilot course that he’s teaching this fall.
“It’s basically looking at the science that goes into federal natural-resource and environmental policy,” he says, “from the perspective of Bentley being a business school.”
His plans for the course include collaborating with an environmental nonprofit organization and performing real work on legislation. Then, drawing on his Capitol Hill connections, he and several students will visit D.C. for a few days. “We’ll see the Senate and House in action, take some meetings with our congressional delegations, and see how policy is done up close.”
Whether through crime-scene analysis or public policymaking, Szymanski has a single aim: instilling an appreciation for the importance of science. At Bentley, he welcomes being part of a team that prepares scientifically literate business professionals.
“We all have a love of teaching nonscientists,” he says of fellow faculty in the Natural Sciences Department. “That’s why I chose to come to here.”