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Sometimes, plans turn out as exactly as expected. Sometimes, they turn out even better.

The latter is certainly the case for Kayla Tunajek, who came to Eastern Kentucky University for its prominent forensic science program, and is leaving as a fire, arson, and explosion investigation graduate who could choose from among multiple job offers across the country. She will graduate magna cum laude May 12.

Originally from Springville, Alabama, and a graduate of Louisville’s Seneca High School, Tunajek quickly discovered that forensics was not the field for her, so she talked to her advisers about other programs Eastern offered that involved investigations. Her inquiries led Tunajek to her new home.

“I took one class and just fell in love with fire investigation and fire science as a whole,” said Tunajek, who called the EKU program “the only one of its kind in the country.”

“The professors truly care about their students' success, and they do an excellent job of teaching us the concepts we need to be successful,” she explained. “One major way this program has shaped me as a person is it has made me a stronger, more confident student. It has also provided me with numerous opportunities to conduct research, attend conferences, and gain certifications.”

One such opportunity occurred recently, when Tunajek presented her research at the International Association of Arson Investigators Annual Training Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tunajek has been developing a method for evaluating and excluding outlets as the cause of a fire. Though outlets are examined at nearly every fire scene, there is actually no formal method for doing so. Tunajek hopes to offer a step-by-step process for eliminating outlets as the cause of a fire.  

While there, Tunajek won an award for “best poster which advances scientific understanding and presents or advances new ideas in fire investigation and related research.” Her work will also be published in the Australian Association of Fire Investigators Fire Point magazine.

Perhaps even more exciting than her groundbreaking work are Tunajek’s career plans. The EKU senior graduates on May 12, and has already accepted a job with Unified Investigations and Sciences in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tunajek admitted that working as a female in a male-dominated field can be difficult, but she never shies away from a challenge. “You have to be confident in your knowledge and skills without coming across as arrogant. You have to work harder and overcome the typical stereotypes.”

Proof of Tunajek’s hard work can be seen in her impressive 3.8 GPA. She was also recently named Outstanding Senior from the School of Safety, Security, and Emergency Management. Dr. Greg Gorbett, associate professor in the school, nominated Tunajek for the award, calling her “unequivocally one of the best students and people I have ever had the pleasure to teach or know.”

Along with her exemplary academic record, Tunajek is a member of the National Society for Collegiate Scholars, and has served as An EKU Guru and Orientation leader. Both jobs strengthened her communication skills and “have allowed me to help students be successful. I have also been able to make connections not only with students, but with faculty and staff as well.”

Though Tunajek’s time at Eastern is almost over, she stressed that she will never forget her experiences here. “EKU has become my home for the past four years,” she reflected. “When I first began college, I did not see myself where I am today.

“I will be returning to get a master's degree in fire investigation. I absolutely love EKU and I am so thankful for every opportunity I have been afforded.”

— by Yasmin White, Student Writer, EKU Communications & Brand Management