As O’Neill Criminal Justice major Nichole Reatherford walks into the crime lab, she starts checking bags filled with electronics—things like phones, computers, smart watches, and more. The devices are evidence—and she’s looking for someone’s digital fingerprints.
“Everyone’s physical fingerprints are important, but our digital fingerprints are just as important,” she explains.
She reads the case warrant carefully, making sure she knows exactly what she can—and cannot—look for or through on each device.
“You always have to make sure you have a detailed warrant for each device,” she says. “Not following the warrant can literally set a guilty person free.”
She opens the evidence envelope, pulls out the devices, and arranges them neatly on her desk, taking meticulous notes as she goes. Organization and documentation, she says, are critical to what she does.
Then she gets to work. She plugs in the devices to the department’s forensic tools and uses software to scour apps, text messages, and call records—anything that might be of use to detectives.
“I like to think I’m like an undercover agent,” she chuckles. “That’s always been the joke in my family—that I could track down almost any information, digitally.”
Reatherford is one of two interns currently working with the Digital Forensics Unit, a partnership between the IU Police Department and the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. IUPD Detective Sarah McKalips leads the internship and helps introduce students to the world of digital forensics.
“Almost everyone has at least one cell phone they carry around,” she says. “Most people never go anywhere without it. Those phones store a lot of information—locations, photos, sensitive data, banking information—all of which can be highly critical to a case.”
McKalips wanted a program and a pace that would let students build their knowledge and experience over several semesters.
“Ideally, anyone applying for this internship would still have a few semesters left before graduation because it can take 12–18 months to really understand what you’re doing in digital forensics,” she explains.
To develop the internship curriculum and find the right students, McKalips extended the partnership to three schools at IUPUI: the School of Science, the Luddy School, and the O’Neill School—each representing a different aspect of the digital forensics field.
O’Neill School Professor Tom Stucky says the nature of the internship combines multiple disciplines, providing a unique opportunity that allows O’Neill students to be on the forefront of an emerging career field.
“O’Neill is a very interdisciplinary school, and this is a great model for how interdisciplinary work can proceed,” Stucky says. “Digital forensics is somewhat of a new space but one that is rapidly developing and there are myriad applications for these skills. That’s why, ultimately, we’d like to see the development of O’Neill certificates and degree programs linked to digital forensics in the futures.”
Reatherford says even her current O’Neill classes about the court system and criminal justice processes helped lay the foundation for understanding her internship—and, in turn, her internship has deepened the lessons she’s learning in her final year with O’Neill.
“As interns, we are getting hands-on experience with real crime,” she says. “I’m working with detectives, alongside police officers, and they are actually using our work to exonerate or convict people in the court of law. That real-world experience is incredible.”
Stucky hopes other students will also recognize this internship’s benefits as more police departments expand their digital forensics units to keep up with the changing times. He also hopes it will give even more students the chance to explore their options and make decisions about their futures.
“Internships help students find out what they want to do as well as what they don’t want to do,” he stresses. “The experience will not only be beneficial from the standpoint of gaining knowledge and experience, but there are connections they can make. It’s not at all uncommon for our students to come directly out of an internship and get hired by those agencies.”
Reatherford wasn’t sure about her future career when she first applied for the Digital Forensics Unit internship in 2022. But she says it has helped provide clarity for her future.
“Because of this internship, I could see myself staying in the digital forensics world as a career,” she says. “It’s a really cool field to work in.”
As Reatherford puts her tools away for the day, she updates the evidence log and secures the envelope for the detectives to use in the future. She says she’s proud that she can contribute behind the scenes to make a difference in the criminal justice process, while staying true to O’Neill mission to make a difference.
“This line of work really gives you the chance to help someone, whether it’s the victim or an innocent suspect,” Reatherford stresses. “It gives you the chance to be a part of helping others, which is what I really want to do.”
Students interested in the internship should submit a resume, cover letter, and recommendation letter from their respective school to Detective Sarah McKalips via email.