Criminal justice graduate student Melody Shinner talks about how an interest in forensics and criminal justice has evolved into a career she loves.
Gunshot residue, latent fingerprints, fiber samples and strands of hair.
Think we're talking about props for an episode of CSI?
For Melody Shinner, however, collecting, preserving and analyzing trace evidence and providing courtroom testimony is more than the story line for a TV drama. It's part of the Saint Leo University alumna and graduate student's job.
A job she dreamed about for a long time and feels fortunate to be able to do every day.
Melody is a criminalistics technician for the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office in Punta Gorda, Florida. She locates, documents, examines and identifies evidentiary items for criminal investigations. She also testifies in court based on the evidence she has helped process.
Although she says the work sometimes can be difficult, helping identify potential suspects and solve crimes is rewarding.
"I feel like my work is making a difference and is helping to keep the community in which I serve safe and protected," she says.
Building a criminal case
One of Melody's favorite aspects of her job is examining latent prints that are collected directly from a crime scene or from items of evidence. She says the prints are typically the first piece of evidence detectives and investigators use as they are identifying suspects.
She also detects, documents and collects trace evidence such as hair, fibers, biological and miscellaneous impressions from crime scenes and through autopsies.
As she's performing her analysis, she says it's important to follow established handling protocols to ensure the integrity of the evidence.
"I'm often provided details of the case to help determine the best methods for processing and how the evidence was obtained," Melody says. She then reports her findings and works to ascertain how the evidence and possible subjects are intertwined in the case.
As cases head to court, Melody is there to collect fingerprints or testify in regard to the evidence that was processed or examinations that were completed and resulted in identifying a suspect.
Developing a career in criminalistics
Melody has always been interested in a career in law enforcement. During high school, she worked at a local pharmacy where she helped the loss prevention department develop programs to deter theft and combat shoplifting.
Concerned about her safety, Melody's family discouraged her from continuing in the field when she was younger, but at 40-years-old she decided it was time to pursue her career passion.
Melody received an associate degree in medical laboratory technology from the University of Montana in 2000. A few years later, she enrolled in criminal justice classes at a state college in southwest Florida where she earned a second associate degree in criminal justice in 2008.
At that point, Melody began looking for ways to stand out from the number of students in the field. She transferred to Saint Leo's online criminal justice degree program and specialized in criminalistics. She started volunteering at the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office as a reserve deputy, and she entered the police academy. In 2014, she completed her bachelor's degree with Saint Leo.
"Once I finished the academy, I received a position at the Sheriff's Office as a deputy and worked in the field for a couple of years until a position in forensics became available," she says.
"It took a while, but eventually I found my way into my dream position as criminalistics technician. Attending the police academy and completing my bachelor's degree in criminal justice at Saint Leo's with a concentration in criminalistics was extremely helpful to meet the job requirements."
Gaining credibility with a master's degree
While she's happily immersed in her dream job, Melody isn't slowing down. She's currently working toward an online master's degree in criminal justice with a concentration in forensic science at Saint Leo and anticipates that she'll finish the program in 2017. She says continuing her education helps with her credibility as an expert in the field.
Given her current job assignment, attending traditional on-ground classes would be incredibly difficult, Melody says, which is why she opted for Saint Leo's online graduate program. Since the program is 100 percent online, it gives her flexibility that allows her to best manage and utilize her time.
"Saint Leo has a terrific reputation. The professors understand the types of demands non-traditional students face, and they work with you," Melody says. "Plus, the academic advisors provide valuable guidance that helps you make the most of the time you have to work toward your degree."
So how does the 46-year-old stay motivated? Her husband of 20 years, Eric, is a great support.
"You will have days where you cannot find the time necessary to complete all your obligations, and you will want to throw in the towel and give up. But you have to promise yourself that you will finish what you started no matter how long it takes."
And for those who are thinking about becoming criminalistics technicians, she echoes the advice she was once given.
"Volunteer. Join organizations like the Florida Division of International Association of Identification, which offers opportunities to network with others in the field," she says. "Look for ways to stand out."
After all, nothing is ever as simple or easy as it appears to be on TV – including becoming a real-life crime scene investigator.
Image credits: Scott Rothstein on Shutterstock and courtesy Melody Shinner