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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