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Digital Detective: UCF Computer Science Graduate Student Does Double Duty to Help Fight Crime

Ariel Turnley is pursuing not one, but two UCF master’s degrees while serving as a digital forensics intern for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office
By: Bel Huston | October 12, 2023

Computer science graduate student Ariel Turnley had very different plans for her future while she was a freshman at Spelman College. Since then, her planned career path has shifted from working in an operating room to working in a computer lab. Her ultimate motivation however has never changed: helping people.

Turnley originally dreamed of becoming a surgeon but wasn’t a fan of biology. When she took a computer science class that was required for her major, it changed her whole career trajectory.

“I did really well in that course and found it to be so interesting how you can write up code to do almost anything you could think of,” she says. “I was even helping other people understand programming and helping them with their assignments.”

Turnley decided to make the leap to a subject that came so easily to her, changing her major to computer science.

“When you’re in college each decision seems like a life-changing decision since it determines your career,” she says. “I realized that some of the best decisions that you make are going to be scary, and if it’s not scary then it is not worthwhile. I made the shift and I truly enjoyed my experience.”

UCF was one of two Florida schools Turnley considered to pursue a graduate degree. Ultimately, she chose to become a Knight after determining that UCF’s programs were more unique and hands-on, and with many more resources to help her succeed with it being such a large school. With her sister in Orlando and friends in the area who had graduated from UCF, she had a strong support system in place as well.

She had her sights set on UCF’s master’s in digital forensics program, one of the six master’s degree programs offered by the UCF Department of Computer Science. With few forensics programs offered across the U.S., Turnley made a judicious decision to take on a second master’s degree program simultaneously.

“Thinking strategically, I decided that it would be beneficial to also have a degree in cyber security and privacy as this would provide me with more opportunities if I was unable to find a role in digital forensics initially,” she says. “It did help that the cybersecurity program was built off of the digital forensics program, therefore, some of the classes I have taken apply for both programs.”

Her inspiration for pursuing digital forensics is an unconventional one, but for Criminal Minds fans, it makes complete sense. Turnley has been enamored of the show since her first year in college, and a fan of the character Penelope Garcia in particular. As a technical analyst for the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, the quirky hacker turned criminal profiler helped track down miscreants with digital evidence, uncovering incriminating data in seconds.

“I am a true crime junkie and understanding the psychology behind the criminals was fascinating. What really drew me in, though, was Garcia, the tech genius behind finding all the information that the team needed,” she says. “I wanted to be just like her: fighting crime without having to be on the front lines.”

As a digital forensics intern for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, Turnley is well on her way to doing just that.

“As you can imagine from my original career choice, I have always wanted to help people. By doing digital forensics in the criminal space, I would be able to assist people on a larger scale by helping keep communities and the world safe,” she says.

Her ultimate goal is work for a law enforcement or government agency, giving her the opportunity to provide digital forensics services on a grand scale. She says UCF has helped put her on this path in her academic career with several resources.

“UCF has helped me so far through organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers, Career Services, and my mentors, Dr. (DeLaine) Priest and Dr. (Ali) Gordon,” Turnley says. “I will continue to cultivate my UCF network even after graduation and the services available to me as an alumnus to further achieve my goals.”

Story from Digital Detective: UCF Computer Science Graduate Student Does Double Duty to Help Fight Crime by Bel Huston for UCF Today