In the spring of 2016, Bianca Brandon made a trip to ShopRite and purchased eight chickens. When a curious cashier wondered aloud why she was buying so much raw poultry, Brandon remembers with a laugh, she replied, “I don’t think you want to know.”
The chickens were victims of Brandon’s forensic science class at Staten Island Technical HS, where for the next eight weeks students would study the effects of external factors — like weather and insect activity — on body decomposition. Some of the chickens were buried in soil; others sat outside on the concrete in the sun. Students were curious about whether clothing would affect decomposition, so one of the chickens wore a tiny T-shirt.
“It really was stinky,” Brandon says matter-of-factly. “But in science, sometimes it smells bad and looks gross, and that’s just how it goes!”
For her innovative and dynamic technique in the classroom, Brandon was honored with a 2016 Sloan Award for Excellence in Teaching Science and Mathematics.
Brandon, who has taught forensics and biology at Staten Island Tech for more than 10 years, speaks from experience. Before making a career change to become a teacher in 2003, Brandon worked as a criminalist and a DNA analyst in New York City’s Chief Medical Examiner’s Office, examining evidence in sexual assault and homicide cases. After the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, she worked full time for two years on identifying the remains of victims.
“It was really difficult work,” she says, describing shifts in the morgue collecting tissue samples and speaking with victims’ family members about DNA testing. “It took a toll on everybody.”
Brandon, who wears a white lab coat emblazoned with a medical examiner’s patch in class, brings the skills she honed under Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch to the classroom.
“Dr. Hirsch taught me how to be a good scientist — not only in terms of technical skills, but also with respect to scientific argumentation and how to interpret evidence,” she says. “My students know my background and know that what we’re doing is authentic.”
On a recent morning, students were tasked with analyzing the validity of a forensic analyst’s testimony in a 1987 case in Montana in which a man had been wrongfully convicted of rape. The analyst’s testimony had convinced the jury to send the suspect to prison — but his conviction was overturned in 2002 on the basis of DNA evidence.
The analyst in the original case had testified that the probability that hairs found at the scene of the crime belonged to someone other than the suspect was less than 1 in 10,000. Brandon’s students immediately set to work poking holes in the theory.
“There’s no standard for statistically matching hairs, so he pulled those numbers out of thin air,” one student pointed out.
“There’s no database for hair, and FBI standards for hair analysis say that hair isn’t suitable for making identification in the first place,” said another.
Brandon nodded thoughtfully as she listened in on students’ conversations, dropping a few suggestions about how students might focus their research on the case. By the end of the week, students would be expected to write a detailed explanation of why the expert testimony in the case was misleading and scientifically inaccurate, supporting their claims with reliable sources.
“It’s tying in science with skills that are traditionally more humanities-based — writing, discussing, expressing opinions. It’s a real challenge to do both at the same time,” says Brandon.
Each June, Brandon painstakingly creates a mock crime scene in a vacant classroom that her forensic science students spend a full day analyzing as their final exam.
“Ms. Brandon ties in hard science, which is what I’m really interested in, to what happens in the real world,” says Maisha, a 12th-grade student. “She’s able to give us really detailed feedback on our work — there’s no way to not know what you did wrong because she always explains it in detail.”
In Brandon’s AP biology class, students participate in a series of case studies that are both academically and topically relevant. This year, for example, students worked in teams to study the Zika virus, examining both the structure of the virus and the biological and social factors that led to the spread of the epidemic in the summer of 2016.
“She takes the elements of the curriculum and gives them a real-world application,” says Ray Ferrigno, a physics teacher and the school’s chapter leader. “For many of our students, being a doctor is the goal. But Bianca brings a light to a whole range of fields in science. She demonstrates how work in the field allows you to do good.”