EDMOND, OK -- Holding a common steam iron in her gloved hand, criminalist Stormy Gribble releases a cloud of hot mist as she slowly waves the simmering iron an inch or two above a napkin she has carefully placed on a work bench in a forensic science laboratory.
Beneath the napkin is a piece of cardboard evidence from a burglary that has been treated with ninhydrin, a chemical used to detect fingerprints. With the steam and heat she is applying, Gribble hopes to accelerate development of any latent fingerprints that might be used to identify a suspect.
In an enclosed chamber nearby, a small electrical hot plate heats up a kind of super glue to produce a fine vapor. The vapor mixes with humidity from a jar of warm water in the chamber to create a mist that reveals several latent prints on a couple of DVDs and a set of bolt cutters in the chamber.
The scene could be background for an episode of the popular crime drama television series "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." But it is actually part of the real-life, crime-solving work that occurs daily inside the laboratories of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation's Forensic Science Center.
"It's not like CSI," said Andrea Solorzano, assistant division director at the $31 million, 86,000-square-foot lab that opened a little more than one year ago.
"It's the best job in the world. There's so much variety to it," Solorzano said. "You never know what you're going to walk into everyday."
Located across Second Street from the University of Central Oklahoma campus in Edmond, the lab has partnered with UCO's Forensic Science Institute to provide instruction and hands-on experience for the university's forensic science students and training for judicial and law enforcement professionals.
"It's certainly not happenstance that they're right across the street from us," said Dwight Adams, retired director of the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va., who now heads UCO's forensic science program.
Adams said it was the vision of UCO and OSBI officials to build a campus setting for OSBI's new lab and the Forensic Science Institute so they would benefit from each other. New forensic science classrooms and administration offices are under construction on the UCO campus a short distance from OSBI's lab.
"The professionals at the OSBI laboratory are brought into our classes and instruct our students," Adams said.
Similarly, many OSBI criminalists with backgrounds in chemistry, physics or biology have obtained graduate degrees through UCO's Forensic Science Institute, Solorzano said.
Adams described OSBI's lab as one of the finest in the nation.
"It was like stepping back into the FBI Laboratory," he said, adding that it offers the "perfect setting" for UCO forensic science students to intern. Popular TV shows like "CSI" have increased awareness and interest in forensic science, Adams said.
"We in law enforcement have been the beneficiaries of shows like that because of the interest it spurs in students," Adams said. UCO currently has 155 undergraduate students and up to 40 graduate students enrolled in the forensic science program.
"CSI" has also heightened interest in courtrooms where OSBI criminalists discuss evidence recovered from various crime scenes and the scientific techniques used to connect a defendant to the crime.
"It does definitely increase the expectations of the jurors," Solorzano said. "They do seem to perk up and pay attention when one of our analysts goes to testify. It has kind of raised the bar and they expect that on every case."
"CSI" involves the work of a team of forensic scientists who investigate the circumstances behind mysterious and unusual deaths and other crimes. While dramatic and entertaining, it does not always accurately portray how investigations are performed by real forensic scientists, said Jim Stokes, supervisor of the latent fingerprint unit at OSBI's lab.
"It oversimplifies a lot of the work that we do," Stokes said. "It's not a formula. TV kind of lends to that." Like the TV show, the fingerprint unit as well as drug analysis, toxicology, biology and other labs within the Forensic Science Center make extensive use of computers and other sophisticated electronic equipment.
"We pride ourselves on the type of equipment we have," Solorzano said. Thanks to a federal grant, Oklahoma's is the first state forensics lab in the nation to receive equipment worth $250,000 that is used to build a DNA data base. But the show frequently overlooks the meticulous, time-consuming work done by criminalists who try to match latent fingerprint evidence with a suspect or labor to recover a serial number that has been removed from a weapon recovered from a crime scene.
"They actually make that look like the easy part. They glamorize that," Stokes said. But the skills of OSBI criminalists are honed from years of experience and training.
"What we're doing in this unit is a technical skill," Stokes said as he peered into a computer display of two different sets of fingerprints. "Unlike what you see on TV, the computer does not make the match. The biggest part of our job takes place at our desk with a magnifier. It's not CSI."
However, the work of real criminalists can sometimes mimic the emotional toll that CSI actors depict as they work to solve a tragic homicide, especially those involving helpless victims like children. "My heart goes out to the families and their loss," Solorzano said.
"Our backlog, it's constant. And you can only do so much and you know there's so much more you need to do."