Forensic Science – Using Science to Make Known, the Unknown

Born and raised in Offenau, Germany, Laura (Schwalb) Vande Hey ‘21 came to the United States as an au pair. Arriving in Milwaukee at 19 years old, Laura lived with a host family and in exchange, she helped care for their disabled daughter. Before coming to the United States, Laura graduated from her German high school after majoring in biotechnology. With schools in Germany requiring students to pick a major, Laura took advanced classes like chemistry and physics. She learned to speak three languages before graduating – English, French, and German. Laura dreamed of a career in forensic science and always felt drawn to using the science of evidence to solve mysteries.

A Sense of Belonging

After a couple of years in the United States, she began to investigate colleges to continue her education. Researching a strong forensic science program, led Laura to explore Marian University and a UW school. She toured both and loved everything Marian had to offer. She immediately felt a sense of belonging – a critical component for the first-generation college student, especially given her distance from “home” in Germany. Receiving the Sr. Mary Mollison Legacy Scholarship, Laura found it easy to choose Marian. Not only did her scholarship make education affordable, but it was less expensive than the state school that raised tuition for international students.

Laura made a lot of friends at Marian. She started working with Auxiliary Support Services during her first year. This made it possible for her to meet people, make new friends, and assimilate into the Marian community. During this time, Laura also forged a dear friendship with the supervisor of Auxiliary Support Services, Greg Gross.

With her family back in Germany, Laura found a second family at Marian. This would prove to be a blessing especially when faced with a global pandemic and her fiancé’s military deployment to Afghanistan. Laura married her fiancé, Ross Vande Hey, a few months into the pandemic. Two of her bridesmaids were close friends she made on campus. Sadly, a ban on international travel would prevent her family from attending the wedding. But her friend and “second dad,” Greg Gross, walked Laura down the aisle on her wedding day!

The Body Tells a Story

Laura started as a forensic science major with chemistry as a minor. She later added biology as a second minor. Both driven and focused, Laura knew what she wanted to study and how she would use that in her career. She found her classes engaging and thrived in learning from adjunct professors that brought their fieldwork to the classroom. While she enjoyed all of her forensic classes, bloodstain pattern analysis was her favorite. Not only did Laura get involved in Marian’s Forensic Science Association (FSA), but she led it as the president. The FSA organizes speakers and facilitates crime scene mock-ups at the crime scene lab/house.

Graduating in May of 2021, Laura didn’t have to wait long to begin her dream job. In December, she was hired as a Medicolegal Investigator for Brown County. Her job starts at the moment life ends. Laura is called to the scene following any suspicious, unnatural deaths, or any death that occurred in uncontrolled environments such as a home residence. She examines the body to determine the cause and manner of death, photograph and collect evidence, investigate the scene around the body, and use all of this physical evidence to tell a story.

She’s grateful to be doing the exact work that prompted her decision to study forensic science. Laura’s knowledge and experience have adequately prepared her for success in this career and even resulted in her training being reduced. Recently, she sent her favorite Professor and Forensic Science Program Chair, Diana Johnson, a letter about her new position sharing, “I will have to get certified with the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. As I work towards this certification, I have already been reminded of many things that I have learned from you and many of the amazing adjuncts during my time at Marian. This is why I would like to thank you all again for making the program fun, while also making sure we learn what is needed later on in the field.”

Helping Families Find Closure

Laura understands that her job may not help people in the conventional ways we often consider. But she has the crucial role of following the science to provide answers. Though she often works long hours surrounded by death and the subsequent trauma and pain, Laura offers loved ones of the deceased – closure – or at the least, a sense of peace that comes from having answers. This is especially critical when the cause of death was not natural. And in those devastating cases when a life is taken, Laura plays a vital role in ensuring that science allows justice to prevail. Though made-for-TV shows like NCIS and CSI-Miami seldom depict the harsh reality and this work isn’t for the faint of heart, Laura is grateful to have the career she dreamed of while making a difference through her work.

Marian University’s Bachelor of Science in Forensic Science program teaches students how to analyze and examine evidence from crime scenes to develop objective findings that can assist in crime investigation. Faculty with professional field experience help students gain the knowledge, skills, and analytical techniques needed to enter the field. Visit our website to learn more about our interdisciplinary approach that combines biology, chemistry, mathematics, statistics, criminal justice, physics, and forensic science.