During her time at Wittenberg, chemistry major Michelle Peace, Wittenberg class of 1991, didn’t know much about crime labs or forensic scientists as they exist today. But on the advice of a Wittenberg professor and a visit to a crime lab in Ohio, she was hooked.
“As a chemistry major, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do,” said Peace, who went on to earn a master’s degree in forensic science from George Washington University and a Ph.D. from the Medical College of Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) where she is currently a forensic science professor. “In a conversation with Wittenberg professor Dr. Amil Anderson (associate professor of chemistry at Wittenberg) about my career future, he suggested I combine my interest with the law and my chemistry major as a forensic scientist. I had no idea that things called ‘crime labs’ existed, as they did. My only understanding was from the TV show Quincy. So, after visiting the crime lab in Columbus, I knew that was going to be my future.”
A first-generation college student, Peace found Wittenberg to be the perfect place for her to grow.
“It was the place my world exploded with opportunities beyond what I had imagined,” said Peace, who was a justice and then chief justice of the Student Hearing Board and a member of the Chemistry Club during her time at Wittenberg. “The chemistry faculty created a great creative place - a safe place. But it was Dr. Anderson who gave me a book about using chemistry to solve crimes. I was fascinated by that application and the ability to help people and communities with chemistry. James Huffman (professor emeritus of history) also really gave me confidence to think about other issues critically. I was so encouraged by Dr. Huffman that the evidence-driven scientific method could be applied to anything and everything else.”
And while working in academia was never her career interest, that’s where Peace found her comfort zone.
“As a faculty member, I have the classic workload of teaching, research, and service. I enjoy inspiring young people, impacting policy, discovering new things, and advocating for things that I feel strongly about. I am deeply proud of all my students. Watching them grow while they are students and then watching them get jobs and become leaders - that's my greatest joy,” she said.
Peace entered academia while working on her Ph.D. after the dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences at VCU set a goal of starting an undergraduate curriculum in forensic science.
“I had the great opportunity to develop and teach some of the first classes we taught in the program for undergrads,” she said. “I saw the program grow from 10 undergrads to 400 in four semesters. I was also mentoring undergrads while I finished my doctoral work. When I graduated, I left to manage a private forensic toxicology lab because that was really what I wanted to do with my career. Even though I enjoyed working in the lab, it wasn't long before I realized I missed academia - teaching, research, and working with students. The department eventually opened another faculty position, and I was fortunate to be hired back.”
Peace uses the knowledge she acquired at Wittenberg and from her work at VCU to tackle legislative issues in today’s world. She has been funded by the National Institute of Justice since 2014 to study how electronic cigarettes are used and manipulated to vape drugs other than nicotine.
“This has led to an understanding of how the devices work and are being abused, which has allowed me to travel the country and meet with communities to talk about changing policies and regulations regarding vaping. I also meet with law enforcement officers about what evidence to collect at a scene, and with addiction treatment specialists and social workers about helping their clients,” she said. “I've been able to translate what I do at the analytical chemistry bench to impact public health and public safety in a pretty short arc. That is deeply satisfying.
“The e-cig research has also given me some recent opportunities to testify to the Food and Drug Administration about problems that have arisen with the lack of regulation for the hemp and CBD (cannabidiol) industry. I have been contacted by people who have used CBD products as a therapy for pain or anxiety and have had terrifying experiences. Upon investigation, they took CBD products that had been adulterated by someone else in the supply chain with a dangerous drug. The lack of regulations on these products has created a wide window for nefarious behavior. Consumers are in a ‘buyer beware’ situation.”
For those interested in a career in forensic science, Wittenberg University offers students a way to achieve both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in five years. The university has entered into an affiliated agreement with Bowling Green State University (BGSU) that leads to a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in chemistry from Wittenberg and a Master of Science in Forensic Science (M.S.F.S.) with a specialization in forensic chemistry from BGSU.
Under the agreement, Wittenberg students who meet specific course and GPA requirements – including 73 credits in the chemistry major and all general education requirements – may apply to BGSU in the first semester of their third or junior year at Wittenberg. If accepted, the students then begin work on a master’s degree in what would normally be their last year of undergraduate work.