Leaving a Mark on Piedmont

What do a glass, a dented hammer and an unfired ceramic jar have in common? They are all surfaces Tatum Williams dusted for fingerprints in her capstone research in forensic science. Tatum, a senior forensics science and criminal justice double major, gave her capstone presentation on fingerprints on Wednesday, April 17, 2019 during PRIDE day at Piedmont College.

Capstones at Piedmont College represent a culmination of everything a senior has learned in his or her major while attending classes there. Tatum was given the option to choose between a research and experiment-based capstone, but chose to experiment with fingerprints in order to accumulate her research.

“I didn’t have to do the fingerprints,” Williams said. “But it was the more exciting and fun one, so that’s just what I decided to do.”

Williams chose three students and three surfaces to complete her research. As she learned in class, there are three kinds of surfaces: porous, nonporous smooth and nonporous rough. Williams chose to use a glass, a dented hammer and an unfired ceramic jar as her three surfaces for collecting fingerprints.

“My plan was to compare the lifted prints that I took of them (the volunteers) to a set of known prints,” Williams said. “So I had an inkpad and I would have them roll their finger on the inkpad, and then I would roll it on an index card to see. It would be my control of their fingerprint. I did that with their index finger and their thumb.”

After doing the initial set of prints, Williams would ask the volunteers to touch their fingers to their noses, or another oily part of their skin, in order to get the prints to show up more prominently. At first, Williams had some trouble when trying to lift fingerprints.

“I wasn’t getting anything,” Williams said. “I was so confused. I know these are ideal conditions; I don’t understand why I’m not getting anything.”

After chatting with a fellow forensics major, Williams discovered that her problem was that she wasn’t allowing the prints to dry before she dusted them with fingerprint powders. She realized that crime scene investigators don’t explore the scene right away, and that fingerprints under real conditions wouldn’t still be wet when taken in for investigation.

“That’s not how crime scenes work,” said Williams. After deciding to allow 15 minutes to pass before dusting, her results turned out much stronger.

Williams’ hypothesis was that, out of the various powders she used, black powder would work best on each of the surfaces.

“I ended up getting five comparable prints for my glass using my black powder, two comparable prints for my glass using my magnetic powder, one for each using the black powder and the magnetic powder on the hammer, and then I got absolutely nothing on my ceramic jar,” Williams said.

Williams’ hypothesis proved to be mostly correct. The black powder worked best on the glass, but the other two surfaces had an equal amount of comparable prints, making it hard to tell. Although Williams did her experiments under ideal conditions, she treated the process very seriously.

“My role was to be a suspect within the crime scene investigation,” Tamara Morris-Thompson, a senior theatre arts and technical theatre double major and one of Williams’ volunteers, said. “I was participant one. It was weird because I’ve never had any trouble with the law, so being considered a suspect was a weird feeling for me.”

Tony Frye, associate professor of political science and chair of social sciences, was Williams’ advisor on her research.

“My role as faculty is in guiding a student throughout that process (of capstone research), but ultimately the research itself, its development and implementation, is the work of the student,” Frye said. “Tatum’s presentation was a standout among very good presentations. But that is a product of Tatum’s dedication, work ethic, and abilities. She is among our first two graduating senior forensic science students this May, and I think Tatum’s work has set the bar high for future forensic science students.”

Williams used her experiments as a trial and error process, helping her to evaluate realistic situations.

“You only get one chance to collect evidence at a scene,” said Williams. Because she hopes to become a crime scene investigator, this thought stuck with her throughout the process.

Tatum’s research and presentation were a strong representation of her hard work and dedication to forensic science. Along with leaving her mark on the students in attendance of her presentation, Tatum will also leave a mark on Piedmont College as a standard for forensics students to come. Tatum hopes to use her research on fingerprints in her career in crime scene investigation.

Tatum Williams twilliams@lions.piedmont.edu
Tamara Morris-Thompson tmorristhompson@lions.piedmont.edu
Tony Frye tfrye@piedmont.edu

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