Marilyn Miller, crime scene guru and founding forensic science faculty member, retires after 17 years at VCU
If you ask the colleagues of Marilyn Miller, Ed.D., about the impact she's had on the forensic science community, you'll get a clear, consistent answer: For the past 20 years, Miller has been a driving force in legitimizing scientific analysis as a sub-discipline of crime scene investigation. “Dr. Miller [is] devoted to teaching the science of crime scene investigation,” says fellow professor Tal Simmons, Ph.D. “She is an advocate for the value of scientific strategy and bringing the full range of scientific methods to the crime scene itself.”
"We're getting away from police officers doing crime scene work to scientists doing crime scene work," Miller says about where the field is headed. "It's more than just following a checklist, taking a couple pictures and packaging a little bit of evidence. [It’s] about understanding how that evidence is left at the crime scene. Civilian scientists bring objectivity, not subjectivity—it’s about finding all the evidence, not just the easily seen evidence.”
This focus on the development of civilian scientists is what brought Miller to education. While working in forensic laboratories in Florida, Miller was also teaching chemistry at the community college level, and when she saw a posting for an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of New Haven ("the other university in New Haven"), she jumped on it. “Having a chance to teach something that I love, like forensic science, I grabbed it,” Miller says. “I liked it, I was good at it, I love the students.”
When Miller came to VCU, the university was working on accrediting its forensic science program. "People who were working [in forensic science] at VCU before I got here were in the biology area. Since my training was more chemistry—and more crime-scene oriented—I was going to bring a whole new expertise. Once I got here, we became accredited and we became a stand-alone department, and I was the first full-time faculty member to get tenure."
Students love taking Miller's classes, and it's easy to understand why. Abigail Goard, ‘21, says Miller’s classes reminded her why she wanted to be a forensic scientist in the first place. “She made me excited to start learning again.”
"It's more than just following a checklist, taking a couple pictures and packaging a little bit of evidence. [It’s] about understanding how that evidence is left at the crime scene. Civilian scientists bring objectivity, not subjectivity—it’s about finding all the evidence, not just the easily seen evidence.”
“Marilyn always [gets] the loudest cheers when introduced at our department graduation celebration,” says Jo Murphy, communications and program coordinator for the VCU Department of Forensic Science. “[It’s] a testament to her enthusiasm and active engagement with our undergraduate students.” Fellow forensic science professor and chair Tracey Dawson Green, Ph.D., agrees. “Her influence in the classroom touched the lives of hundreds of students over the years, many of whom attribute their successful career progression to their time in Dr. Miller's classroom.”
After the shift to distance learning during spring 2020, Miller decided to make the students in her crime scene investigation class the experts on cases she was analyzing. In an unexpected coincidence, while the country was reeling with George Floyd’s murder, Miller was investigating officer-involved shootings. “I made them use the evidence to show, you know, here’s where the victim was standing, here’s where the police officer was standing. Does the evidence match what the officer said? Does it match what the witnesses said?”
It’s clear that Miller loves what she does. When she talks about her students and the subject matter she gets to share with them, her eyes light up and she gestures with wild, grinning enthusiasm. “I’ve got a cool subject, and cool students, and now a cool school. It’s a win-win-win.”
Miller credits something called the ‘CSI effect’ to the influx of those cool students. “Just about the time I started going into teaching forensic sciences was right about the time the OJ Simpson case happened. My first year at New Haven we had 43 undergraduate majors. After one year it was 400. I hadn’t planned it but my timing was good. I got into education of forensic science at the right time.” Even though some of her colleagues would dismiss the CSI effect, Miller liked it. “For once, juries would listen to me. When I first started [in] the business I could put a jury to sleep, but after CSI they paid attention. They were excited to hear me testify!”
Miller plans to retire in September, and her retirement goals are pretty clear: "The first thing I'm going to do is try to forget what day of the week it is," Miller says, laughing. "I'm going to enjoy the free time I have." She's not done with forensic science, though: when attorneys come knocking with fresh cases to investigate, she's on it. "It's been 43 years of my life. I still like it, and that's the best part."
When asked if she had any parting words of wisdom for her graduating students, Miller stresses how important it is for her students to do their best work, especially students who go into forensic science. “If we don’t do our best work, we’re adding to the problem. Our students, based on their work, could put someone in jail for the rest of their life or be part of a death penalty. We can’t make mistakes. We have to do our best work. And it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know.’”