Students Karp and Caya receive chemistry awards

February 11, 2014
Rebecca Schmitt, Professor Dr. Joseph Wu, Kelsey Caya and Chelsea Johnson
Sara Karp

PLATTEVILLE, Wis.­­­ — As a school known for its forensic science, criminal justice and criminalistics programs, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville provides opportunities for its students in those fields to expand their education beyond the borders of what is taught in the classroom. Dr. Charles Cornett and Dr. Joseph Wu lead the analytical chemistry and criminalistics specializations within the chemistry department and have worked with many students in the past on various undergraduate research projects. Two of their students, Kelsey Caya and Sara Karp, recently were recognized for their undergraduate research work and academic records.

In addition to serving as professional and academic advisors to their students, Cornett and Wu also encourage participation in various conferences around the United States. Recently, they took Caya and Karp, along with four other UW-Platteville students, to the annual conference of the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists, or MAFS, in Dayton, Ohio. More than 250 professionals from the forensic science fields were present at the conference.

Karp, a senior chemistry major with a criminalistics specialization from Mahtomedi, Minn., presented a poster at the MAFS conference summarizing her research entitled, “Validating and Finding Error Rates in Arson Investigation.” Wisconsin has recently implemented the Daubert standard in relation to evidence regarding expert witness testimony, where such testimony may be inadmissible in court if the science has not been validated. The only truly validated forensic science is DNA analysis, and Karp’s work focused on validating the science behind arson investigation by analyzing gasoline evaporation rates.

Karp’s poster research was available in the exhibition hall of the conference for professionals to view and ask questions. She also submitted an abstract and application prior to the conference and received the MAFS Collegiate Student Fund Award, which helped her with the cost of travel and expenses for the conference. As the recipient, Karp was also acknowledged at a business meeting at the conference.

“My research is still ongoing,” said Karp. “I learned things at the conference that I can incorporate into it. Attending the forensic chemistry board was very valuable because it allowed students the opportunity to ask questions and network with professionals.”

Caya, a senior chemistry major with a criminalistics specialization from Oconomowoc, Wis., presented her poster overviewing her research entitled, “Presumptive Color Tests for Illicit Drugs.” Caya’s research involved finding a chemical reagent that would help law enforcement to be able to detect synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones. Synthetic cannabinoids and synthetic cathinones are also known as synthetic marijuana and bath salts and cannot be identified easily by current field kit tests. Caya’s results were part of a larger accumulation of data that demonstrated that these new reagents hold great promise in the detection of synthetic cathinones. She gained interest in this topic during her previous internship with the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory-Milwaukee. 

“Our research is still ongoing,” said Caya. “A company has put out a field test using their own reagent, so we are now comparing our results to theirs. Our research is now focusing more on the chemical structures of the substances.”

Caya, who also attended the MAFS conference, received a scholarship for her academic record from the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors. This nationwide scholarship competition required transcripts and an academic letter of recommendation, and Caya was awarded the $1,000 scholarship to fund her studies.

“Doing things like applying for scholarships and going to conferences shows that you are interested in the field that you are studying,” said Caya. “You’re not just getting your degree, you’re passionate about the subject.” 

Both students have worked actively with Wu and Cornett to prepare their research and apply for the awards they received.

“They are great resources,” said Caya. “I just started working with Dr. Wu this semester, and Dr. Cornett knows a lot of people in the field. He helped me get my internship and is a great resource because he knows so much about criminalistics and chemistry.”

UW-Platteville is the only university within the UW System to offer a criminalistics emphasis for a chemistry degree.

Contact: Dr. Joseph Wu, chemistry and engineering physics, (608) 342-6018,; Dr. Charles Cornett, chemistry and engineering physics, (608) 342-1658,

Written By: Angela O’Brien, UW-Platteville University Information and Communications, (608) 342-1194,



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