Marshall’s Digital Forensics Program Opening A World Of Possibilities For Students, Alumni Such As Nicole Odom
Like many students faced with the overwhelming possibilities of a world post-high school, Illinois native Nicole Odom wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to be when she grew up.
Odom received her undergraduate education close to home at the University of Missouri, where she earned a degree in chemistry with a minor in biological sciences. Shortly after, Odom dedicated a year between her studies to furthering her research experience at the Missouri Orthopaedic Institute, studying x-rays and hand-wrist radiographs.
Something, however, wasn’t quite right with that career path.
“Like many students, when I first started college, I was unsure what I wanted to pursue as a career, so I ended up changing my major quite a few times,” Odom said. “I went from veterinary medicine, to secondary education science, to pre-med with a focus in research, until a suggestion from a friend helped me finally narrow it down.”
The following year, Odom decided to take a leap and pursue forensic science at Marshall University in its Forensic Science Graduate Program. In May of 2019, Odom earned a Master of Science in Forensic Science degree and accepted a position with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science’s Digital and Multimedia Evidence Section in Richmond, Virginia.
During her whirlwind stay in Marshall’s nationally recognized forensic science program, Odom had an opportunity to truly shine, earning multiple awards and even developing programs and software that have since helped shape the industry.
“Growing up, (Forensic Science) always interested me, but for some reason I never actually pursued it prior to my master’s degree from Marshall,” Odom said. “As the forensic sciences are made up of many different disciplines, Marshall’s graduate program allowed me to explore the different areas of focus to find the one, or multiple, areas that interested me. Because of that unique structure, I was able to emphasize in three different disciplines. But after a couple of classes, digital forensics quickly became my area of focus.”
Odom said that Marshall’s unique approach to finding the right fit inside the program was a key factor in deciding to travel to Marshall – that and it’s recognition within the industry as one of the top programs in the country.
“I always hear about lists such as that and wonder if they have any real basis, but in my honest opinion, I think Marshall lives up to its recognition,” Odom said. “The program employs professors who have been there in the field and bring their experiences into the classroom for their students. Marshall’s forensic science graduate program is also unique in that it allows students to try their hands at multiple disciplines within the forensic sciences to determine which might best suit their interests and skill-sets; combining this with its reputation as being an institution housing one of the top forensic science undergraduate and graduate programs.
“The choice to attend Marshall was an easy one.”
Marshall University’s Department of Forensic Sciences provides students the knowledge and skills needed to solve a variety of legal, investigative, or security problems using science and technology. Technology has permeated nearly every facet of society and the threat to intellectual property, personal information, and critical infrastructure has increased exponentially. Additionally, traditional crimes such as murder, robbery, and burglary are also leaving digital evidence across a wide spectrum of technology, including mobile devices, networks, the internet, and cloud computer platforms.
Over the past few years, Marshall’s Department of Forensic Sciences has met this challenge head-on and developed into an industry leader in educating young minds in the latest methods and practices.
While at Marshall, Odom said advisors such as Dr. Ian Levstein and Josh Brunty helped provide the guidance needed to excel in the field. Both educators, alongside the rest of the staff at the school, provided fun and creative ways to learn and helped spark an interest in pursuing digital forensics above the other forensic sciences.
During her time in the program, Odom worked with professors and peers to explore different avenues within the digital realm, leading to some rather unique research and new creations that led to national recognition within the industry. One of those programs, centered around the extraction of crucial data from smartwatches, garnered numerous accolades throughout the industry for Odom and associated professor of digital forensics and information assurance Josh Brunty.
Together, Odom and Brunty presented at the 10th annual Open Source Digital Forensics Conference in Herndon, Virginia, in October of 2019 and spoke about Smartwatch Forensics. The presentation provided a methodology for the forensically sound acquisition of data from stand-alone wearable devices. Odom and Brunty also shared a software tool they created in a lab at Marshall called GearGadget, allowing for the forensic extraction of data from Android Smartwatch devices.
Odom and Brunty also authored a paper on their research, titled “Forensic Inspection of Sensitive User Data and Artifacts from Smartwatch Wearable Devices,” which was accepted for publication in the November 2019 issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
“Since the required research project is an excellent way for students to get hands-on experience in their discipline of choice, I went into it wanting to perform research in an area which didn’t have a lot of prior acknowledgement, but was still directly applicable to the field,” Odom said. “In recent years, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, or common devices such as refrigerators, thermostats, and smartwatches, which are connected via a network, have become very popular. I realized that smartwatch research was underserved. Based on that, I chose two popular devices on the market which could operate either on their own as a standalone device or in a connected mode with a paired mobile phone, populated them with controlled data sets, and attempted to acquire this data in a forensically sound manner.
“The project sought to provide an enhanced understanding of how smartwatch wearable devices with cellular network capability interact with companion mobile phones and where sensitive user data and forensic artifacts are stored. I also wanted to provide a methodology for the forensically sound acquisition of data from a standalone smartwatch wearable device, since no commercial tools existed for this purpose at the time.
“During the data acquisition process, I tried many different methods of acquiring the data from the devices and thoroughly documented both my success and failures, in hopes that the information might aid anyone else in the community trying to obtain data from these devices. I also wanted to make this research readily available to practitioners in the field, so that they could easily acquire data from a smartwatch device if seized during an investigation; therefore, I created the GearGadget tool in addition to submitting the work for publication.”
Additionally, Odom was also recently awarded with an Outstanding Research Award by the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) for her work in the area.
“Being straight out of the gate in this field, receiving the AAFS Digital and Multimedia Sciences Section Outstanding Research Award was a great honor,” Odom said. “The research that I performed was essentially the culmination of my schooling at Marshall. I had a lot of help from my professors and advisors. I know that a lot of research is performed every year by many individuals who attend the AAFS annual Scientific Meeting, so to be considered for this award was pretty exciting in and of itself.
“My research, and the tool created as a result, is a body of work I am happy to have completed and am proud of.”
Soon after presenting her work at the AAFS conference, Odom was noticed by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science’s (DFS) Digital and Multimedia Evidence Section. She began a summer internship while attending Marshall and was eventually employed as a Forensic Scientist Trainee while still pursuing her degree.
The DFS is a nationally accredited forensic laboratory system which provides services to the Commonwealth’s state and local law enforcement agencies, medical examiners, attorneys, fire departments, and state agencies.
Following an extensive training program, Odom became a qualified forensic scientist in July of 2019 and has been working in that position since. Today, Odom focuses on mobile and computer device analysis, processing forensic evidence and examining and recovering data. Odom interprets these results and provides reports and expert witness testimony as needed.
For her work, Odom has continued to be recognized in the industry, serving as guest speaker at universities and conferences, and was recently named the Digital Forensics and Incident Response Newcomer of the Year at the Forensic 4:cast Awards.
“I feel lucky being able to say that I truly love what I do. There are a lot of redeeming qualities about this job since, as a forensic scientist, you get the opportunity to be part of the justice process through science,” Odom said. “Specifically, in digital forensics, you’re never doing the same thing every day. Since technology is always advancing, new challenges come along all the time. I think this might be the most enjoyable aspect of my work.
“I love being able to figure things out. When working on a device that is more difficult, whether due to damage or software updates, it can be frustrating to try and figure out how to get the requested data off of it; however, the process of figuring this out is a challenge which I really enjoy. And successfully being able to return results to an agency for a difficult case is very rewarding.”
With great things ahead, Odom is excited about her future in the field, and the future of Marshall’s forensic science program. With new students entering the program each year, her advice to future scientists in the field is simply to get involved and make connections.
“Find something that you truly enjoy doing and don’t cut corners,” Odom said. “Say yes to the side projects that come up. Apply for student memberships in forensic groups and standards organizations. Just get involved,” Odom said. “And don’t be afraid to take the extra time necessary to make your work the best it can be. People take notice of things that you do in this field, and your attention to detail can make a big difference no matter what discipline you are in.”
From those early days questioning what comes next in life, to a fulfilling career as an award-winning forensic scientist, Odom says that the bold choice to relocate to the Appalachian region and pursue a degree at Marshall truly changed her life.
“Oddly enough, I initially pursued this field because a good friend of mine told me that it was something I might enjoy and do well in when I was questioning what I wanted to do with my career,” Odom said. “Without attending Marshall, I’m not sure I would have had the opportunities I do now. The program required students to complete a summer internship culminating in a research project, and I think that this work and the resulting opportunities which it provided, have been the strongest building blocks in starting my career.
“Through assistance from my advisors and professors, I was able to make connections with the DFS for my internship, as well as come up with a topic which was not heavily touched upon by other researchers. Through that research, I have had the opportunity to present at three national conferences, have been published in a leading forensic science journal, and have received two awards within the digital forensic community.
“Considering that, alongside the real-world experience, excellent mentors, and the program’s encouragement to attend conferences and get involved in the community, I would say that Marshall has had a great hand in shaping my career thus far.”