Chemistry In Crime
Scene Investigation

Brook Nunn

To get a jump on their college education, incoming UW students can take a 5-credit course through Early Fall Start. A lucky few will enroll in CSI: Seattle and meet Brook Nunn. 

My Early Fall Start class gives students the opportunity to learn about analytical chemistry in a really exciting setting.

 — Brook Nunn

There’s been an incident. A student’s body has been discovered outside the Genome Sciences Building on the UW campus, and it appears he fell from the fourth floor. Was it foul play?

Welcome to CSI: Seattle, one of the most popular courses offered by UW's Early Fall Start program.

Brook Nunn, a research assistant professor in the Department of Genome Sciences, has taught the laboratory-based course each summer since 2016, when a colleague was looking for someone new to teach the course. 

“I jumped on it,” Brook said. “It was a really neat opportunity to get students excited about science.” 

Because Brook’s background is in analytical chemistry, specifically proteomics, she decided to retool the course to focus on her expertise; by the end of the course, students should have a fundamental understanding of 13 analytical chemistry techniques. 

Students use these techniques to assist campus police with the investigation, and each student is assigned a different role: lead detective, fingerprint collector, sketch artist and prosecutor, among others. 

“Every day, the students come into class and discuss what the current theory is on the crime, what they’ve collected and what they need to analyze,” Brook said. 

That may mean analyzing the victim’s vomit for trace elements of an allergen or studying the victim’s blood to determine whether he died of alcohol poisoning.

Using the skills they’ve learned, the students piece together a case — they even question “witnesses” played by UW drama students.    

All in all, it’s a big production: Brook and her teaching assistants start setting up a month before the first class. But the effort is worth it, Brook said, if it helps students feel intellectually invigorated and welcome at the UW.

“The most exciting part is seeing them when they discover the next big thing on their own,” she said.