Pioneer Spotlight: Ava Phipps

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Pioneer Spotlight
November 25, 2016
Ava Phipps

Ava Phipps, lecturer of criminal justice and forensic investigation, spent a number of years working in law enforcement and forensic investigation before pursuing teaching.

The former police officer and death investigation specialist was looking for a job that would allow her to use her professional and educational experiences to guide future law enforcement and criminal justice professionals while she earned her doctorate. After seeing a listing for a job opening, Phipps decided that a teaching position in University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Department of Criminal Justice would allow her to meet these goals.

Phipps will be completing her first full year as a faculty member at UW-Platteville in January 2017. She teaches classes in criminal investigation and introductory courses in crime scene investigation.


What did you do before you began teaching at UW-Platteville?

I worked for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation as a death investigation specialist II. I worked briefly for the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office upon first moving to Platteville. Before the GBI, I was a police officer with the Macon Police Department in Macon, Georgia, which consolidated into Bibb County Sheriff's Office. Close to the end of my service with BSO, I was on the Sheriff Response Team and Honor Guard. For most of my career with BSO, I worked patrol through second precinct. Before that, I was in Virginia Beach, Virginia, working for the Virginia Beach jail as an Inmate Records Clerk. I calculated inmate release dates, processed sentencing orders, answered inmate correspondence, and sent inmates to the Department of Corrections if they had over a year left on their sentence. 

I have a Bachelor of Science in legal studies from Kaplan University. I graduated Magna Cum Laude in 2010. I am a member of Alpha Beta Kappa, AAFS, and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. I also have a Master of Science in criminal justice with a dual specialization in forensic science and forensic psychology from St. Leo University. Currently, I am a Ph.D. candidate in public safety leadership with an emphasis in criminal justice at Capella University. 


Do you find yourself drawing on your professional experience while teaching?

For all of my courses, I do draw upon my experience heavily. I use real case studies. I utilize both my experience as a police officer and my experience working for a state crime lab. I reference many things that I have dealt with by utilizing case studies to get students to think critically about crime scene processing, identification of physical evidence, proper collection and disposal of evidence, the different sciences utilized in the forensic investigation network, and how to successfully navigate their criminal investigative responsibilities and their crime scene.

When it comes to drug identification, undercover operations, and narcotics, I bring in my husband, who spent seven years as a narcotics investigator. He talks to them about undercover operations, surveillance, drug identification, working with federal, state, and local agencies, and how narcotics investigation is supposed to work. We utilize a lot of our experience to get the students to see that criminal investigation is not really that you just show up, sit at a desk, and the case is solved in thirty minutes. It could take months or even years to solve a case and we want them to see the hard work that is involved.


What do you hope students take away from your classes?

Because I do case studies in my classes, I would hope that they leave with an understanding that this is not a game. The CSI effect sensationalizes this field. I try to snap them out of that false perception and help them see that what is on TV is not the reality. I want students to see that there is a level of detail, professionalism, and organization required for the job that exceeds the exciting stuff they see on TV. A lot of the time, students think that a case is open and shut, but sometimes things are not always as they seem. TV has many people assuming that criminal justice and forensic investigation are all about the chase, the fight, and the gratifying conclusion in court. However, the adverse is true, criminal investigation can be very frustrating, hard, and spanned out through long durations of time.  In the Intro to CSI course, I go over all of the sciences they will need, and the networks they will need to develop, because forensic investigation and criminal justice is a multidisciplinary field. I also utilize case studies to force them to think about crime scene processing, what evidence they will need to recover, how to recover it, and to keep Locard’s theory in their mind to keep them vigilant at every crime scene. I teach them to treat every case like a homicide.  We cover many sciences, including forensic anthropology, entomology, toxicology, bloodstain pattern analysis, and Forensic DNA (among many others). This way, I can reach a broad network of students and the many different specialties they represent. In addition, for those that are undecided, I can expose them to the many different possibilities they can pursue. For the spring, I am teaching a Death Investigation course. This course will teach them the concepts of medicolegal death investigation; the course essentially teaches how investigation into the cause, manner, and mechanism of death can be a complex and technical process, but very rewarding.


What do you think the most rewarding part of your job at UW-Platteville is?

I think the most rewarding part is being able to see students when they are excited, and expose them to the many different possibilities this career field presents. Many students will graduate, having no idea how many different disciplines are involved in forensic science and criminal justice. Some students think that there is only one route to get into forensic investigation, but there are so many things that they can do outside of the policing base to break into the field. From this vantage point, I can expose them to many different sciences, the nature of the field, and possibly guide them on their way to discovering what is their niche. I can help them have a better vantage point to see what they want to do professionally and have an educated understanding of it.


What qualities do you see in UW-Platteville students that have impressed you the most?

I like that the students here have so many resources. It is impressive how many students utilize those resources, do internships, study abroad, and network. They have such a broad network just from UW-Platteville network of professionals. Students in my classes get the opportunity for hands on experiences and exposure to the unique components of the forensic investigation and criminal justice fields. These opportunities are not something that many schools have, and I admire that our students realize the value of that. Professors here have such a wide range of professional experience that provide students with an educated picture of almost every discipline and make an informed decision on their future professional endeavors.

UW-Platteville’s Criminal Justice Department is one of the best that I have seen. I have not worked in education before; I came straight out of a state crime lab. However, in my scholastic experience, I have found that there have not always been resources or people that care as much about the students as the faculty and community at this school. I think there are so many factors working together that it really bolsters the value of the education here. The Forensic Investigation Crime Scene house is a valuable resource that is unique and coveted by most criminal justice programs. Additionally, upon graduation students will leave with an understanding of criminal justice and forensic investigation that is unique and innovative. I think they should take advantage of that, take advantage of every opportunity, talk to their professors, network, and go to the speaking engagements.

I have a speaker coming on Nov. 28, to speak about criminal investigation and cultural diversity. Darrin Marcus has over a decade of criminal investigation experience, and was the first master training officer for the Macon Police Department. He is currently a special agent in the Macon Judicial Circuit. Additionally, I am taking students to the Illinois State Crime Lab and the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office to expose them to the crime lab and autopsy. I also take my students to the cadaver lab to expose them to the autopsy process, how toxicology is extracted, and post mortem evidence collection.

I hope in the future to bring more opportunities to the campus. I want students to take a hold of the opportunities provided by this program so that they are better prepared for the professional world.

Special Agent Darrin Marcus will speak on cultural diversity in criminal justice on Monday, Nov. 28, at 3-5 p.m. and 6:30-8:30 p.m. in Doudna Hall, Room 136. The lecture is free and open to all UW-Platteville students and community members.


Written by: Emily Drews, Student Writer, Communications, 608-342-1194,


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