Expert busts forensic science myths on 'Conversations from Penn State'

August 09, 2009

The real world of forensic science

University Park, Pa. --  Before taking a job at Penn State, Robert Shaler had the extremely difficult task of trying to identify the remains of the 2,749 victims of the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Shaler led a team of researchers at New York City's medical examiner's office who implemented the DNA testing that would eventually lead to the identification of almost 1,600 victims. He is now director of Penn State's forensic science program. He will share his stories about crime scene investigation on the next "Conversations from Penn State."

"New York was our place. Our friends and neighbors were the ones who died there and we wanted to identify them," said Shaler. "[It] was always in the back of my mind that either the FBI or New York State Police were going to come in and take this away from us."

Shaler is a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and the director of the forensic science program at Penn State. His career spans four decades and included work as a criminalist at the Pittsburgh Crime Laboratory and a professor of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh. Shaler also established the largest forensic biology department in the U.S. with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

Shaler also talks about the "CSI effect," a phenomenon in which popular, crime-based television shows have the potential to influence viewers’ perception of real-life crime scene investigators. He said the television “scientists” might have access to real technology, but may use it in a fabricated way.

"The science they use is a hybridization of what's real and what's not," Shaler said. "They may use a technology which is out there … but they may take that technology and have 'license' with it and make it do things it doesn't really do."

The show will air on the Big Ten Network at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 26, and it will also air on WPSU-TV at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 17. Alternatively, the show can be viewed online at

"Conversations from Penn State" is a new series hosted by veteran interviewer Patty Satalia. The program offers thoughtful, in-depth exchanges with a broad range of remarkable people. In many cases, their trailblazing work has advanced their field and drawn national and worldwide attention. For more than 20 years, Satalia has engaged dynamic individuals from all walks of life and areas of expertise. No matter the guest, she approaches each conversation with the same dedication to research and with a passion for helping people share their stories and insights with the world.

WPSU serves central Pennsylvania with programming, educational services and community outreach. Its public media services produce, acquire and distribute programs that address local interests and reflect the diverse cultural, political, geographic and demographic characteristics of an audience within central Pennsylvania.


  • Robert Shaler

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated November 18, 2010