A Far Cry from CSI

August 25, 2008

Forensic scientists love to laugh at the pseudoscientific methods used on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. A favorite target is the scene in which a “scientist” used a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer to analyze DNA. Yet there’s one aspect of a forensic scientist’s life that the actors get dead right—their passion for work.

 “Every once in a while, you see your work making a difference,” says Jason Schaff, a chemist at the FBI lab in Quantico, VA. “That’s really very rewarding.”


Schaff tells of a case he investigated not long after joining the FBI in 1999. A U.S. attorney had asked the bureau to dig into an arsenic poisoning. Police knew the victim’s neighbor had a motive, but they couldn’t figure out where he might have gotten the poison. Schaff spent two weeks digging up sources of arsenic and in the process discovered that the victim had accidentally poisoned himself. The man had been working on wood treated with copper chromium arsenate, a preservative. Arsenic was in the sawdust he inhaled. “Because you do your job right,” Schaff says, “someone who’s innocent didn’t get charged with a crime.”


Forensic-science supervisor Susan Gross of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension discusses that same sense of satisfaction, this time in helping send a killer to prison. The killer’s wife’s body had been found in a shallow grave two months after she disappeared. Gross scrutinized the skeleton but found no sign of trauma. When she turned her attention toward the victim’s clothes, she found two small holes made with a sharp object. She realized stab wounds at those points could have killed the woman without touching any bones. Confronted with Gross’s evidence, the victim’s husband confessed.


For anyone who shares this passion for using science in the search for truth, opportunities abound. U.S. News & World Report in 2005 counted forensic scientist among the hottest jobs. The American Academic of Forensic Sciences’ website typically lists close to 100 job openings ranging from forensic evidence technician to forensic analytical chemistry professor. Forensic chemists at major labs often specialize either in toxicology—identifying drugs used in crimes—or trace evidence analysis—examining paint, soil particles, hair, gunshot residue, and the like.


Anyone considering a career in forensic chemistry should focus on chemistry, which happens to be the undergraduate degree most common among forensic chemists. Surprisingly, many crime-lab investigators see no value in bachelor’s degrees in forensic chemistry. Such programs may emphasize criminal sociology at the expense of science.


“Go to the best university you can afford and get a chemistry degree,” advises Walter Rowe, a forensic-sciences professor at George Washington University. “Then get on-the-job training or a master’s in forensic science.”

Another benefit of an undergraduate degree in chemistry is that it can lead to a variety of jobs. “Chances are, you won’t get a [forensics] job right out of college,” says forensic-science supervisor Susan Gross of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Gross says that she worked in an environmental lab and a health department for more than three years before landing a job at the Minnesota forensic-science lab.

Gross urges aspiring forensic scientists to seek out crime-lab internships. “You get to know people and get your foot in the door,” she says.

A rare quality without which no forensic scientist would last is the ability to face the darkest side of humanity, and then go home and sleep at night. Some who go into the field find that they can’t, and they burn out in a couple years. “You’re dealing with an aspect of society that’s not always pleasant,” says Max Houck, director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University. “You have to desensitize.”

 This article was written by Cynthia Washam, a Florida-based freelance writer who shares the forensic scientists’ passion for their careers, but is thankful hers doesn’t involve corpses.

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Chemistry For A Cause

August 11, 2008

Wilma Subra knows the frustration of trying fruitlessly to protect people from dangerous exposures to known toxic materials. After finding arsenic and other toxins in the layer of sludge Hurricane Katrina dumped on streets and lawns along the Louisiana coast, Subra implored the Federal Emergency Management Administration to remove the sludge.


“The Feds said, ‘We’re not going to do it,’” she says. “Privately, they tell me they know it’s a health threat.”


Chemical engineer Don MacKenzie faces the same sort of roadblocks when he lobbies Congress to improve the fuel efficiency of cars. MacKenzie works for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.


“There’s been very little progress,” MacKenzie says of the Union’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions. “It’s frustrating.”


Frustrations abound and victories are rare for Subra, MacKenzie, and every other chemist out to change the world. Workdays are long, and paychecks are small. As if that isn’t enough to send every bleeding-heart lab rat scurrying for the security of corporate America, advocates face criticism from relatives, neighbors, and even fellow chemists who don’t share their point of view. Yet chemists who choose to work as advocates wouldn’t trade it for the world.


MacKenzie, for example, could have had a lucrative career in industry. He worked for ethanol producer Syntec Biofuel before joining the Union of Concerned Scientists three years ago.


“I’d been very much of a technology guy,” MacKenzie says. Working as an advocate “was a little bit of a risk. But jumping into this policy world was the best decision I ever made.”


For chemists who want to reshape the world, opportunities abound. The Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Working Group are among the major nonprofits that hire scientists.


Advocacy demands science as precise as that of industry and academia. Anything less would be an easy target for opponents.


Scientific know-how is just the foundation for a career as an advocate. A crucial skill is the ability to explain complex issues in layman’s terms. Independent advocates also need to understand their clients’ legal rights, which means understanding the regulations and laws as well as any lawyer would.


But the most important quality every advocate must have—the desire to do what’s right, not what’s easy—can’t be picked up from a Web site, chemistry class, or Toastmasters group. 


It’s what drives Subra to work 12–15 hours a day, often for people who can’t pay her a dime. The independent environmental consultant informs Louisiana communities of the hazards of factories and waste sites in their backyards. Her efforts were rewarded with the prestigious MacArthur Prize in 1999.


But her real compensation comes from the satisfaction she gets from helping David fight Goliath. “We’ve had a lot of success stopping proposed facilities in inappropriate locations,” Subra says. “We defeated a lot of landfills. We also worked with existing facilities to reduce emissions.”


This article was written by Cynthia Washam,  a freelance science writer in Florida.

Why Would You Study Chemistry?

August 4, 2008

Every year in the spring, I talk to journalism undergraduates about possible career paths they might take, and one piece of advice I always impart is that they should major in anything but journalism. As you can imagine, that nugget doesn’t go over well with the faculty that teaches these journalism students, but it’s something I believe fervently.


Invariably, the students then ask me what my major was. Chemistry and biochemistry, I tell them, with minors in physics and math. The next question is then, “What does that have to do with being a writer?” That’s when I tell them that chemistry is an ideal major for a budding writer because the coursework and lab work builds strong thinking, analytical and organizational skills, which is something that most journalism programs, by and large, don’t emphasize.


Becoming a writer was not something that crossed my mind when I decided to major in chemistry in college, but knowing what I know today about my chosen profession, I would take the same path again if I had it to do all over again. Chemistry isn’t called “the central science” for no good reason – a good education in chemistry can prepare you for a job in a wide range of fields.


Careers in chemical research span the widely known – synthetic chemist, medicinal chemist, polymer chemist, materials scientist, analytical chemist, geochemist, and the like – and the more obscure. In a cursory search on the Web, I found job posting for cement chemists, packing technologists, ethnobotanists, paleoclimatologists, astrobiologist, forensic scientists, and fragrance formulator, all requiring a minimum of a B.S. in chemistry.


Then there are the “non-traditional” jobs open to chemists. I found job postings for science writers, environmental and patent attorneys, technical writers, software designers, restaurant test kitchen researchers, information specialists, government policy analysts, and of course, science teachers that all requested applicants to have a chemistry degree.


I even found a job posting for a special effects coordinator that required applicants to have completed a minimum of two years of graduate school in chemistry. Maybe MacGyver is making a comeback! Or perhaps the CSI franchise intends to be more realistic when it comes to staging lab scenes.


 I’m sure that there are many more unusual professions open to those of us with training I chemistry. In fact, I’d like to hear from you if you are using your chemistry degree for something out of the ordinary. Leave a comment by clicking on the “Comments” link at the end of this blog entry. Let’s see just how creative chemists can be when it comes to career development. I’m sure the results will be surprising.


This article was written by Joe Alper, a freelance science writer and technology analyst in Louisville, CO.