Movies and TV shows portray forensic lab careers as exciting forays into the criminal underworld. Intelligent crime scene investigators use deductive reasoning and scientific techniques to solve crimes within the space of a one or two-hour show. The speed of the job and the glib explanations are exaggerated. However, the reliance on patient analysis and principles of biology, chemistry and forensics are not.
Crime scene investigator, forensic scientist, criminalist and forensic lab technician are just some of the names for those in the forensic lab profession. They begin their tasks outside the lab by traveling to crime scenes, and then evaluating available clues. In their walk-through of the space, they take pictures, make drawings and write notes to detail where each piece of evidence is located and help plan the most useful collection techniques. They then pick up physical evidence, such as bullets, fingerprints and blood, using such tools as black lights, tweezers and chemical kits.
Back at the lab, forensic scientists use scientific analysis and testing on the evidence. They must follow strict procedures to preserve clues and record results, if their findings are to be legally acceptable. Their primary goals are to identify how, when and why a crime took place, and who perpetrated it. Among their scientific arsental are microscopes for scrutinizing tiny particles, chemicals for determining substances and databases for examining past criminal patterns. They can consult with specialists, such as biologists, coroners or police officers for further explanations. They may then explain their findings verbally to reporters, in writing to the public or by testifying in court.
In small or rural agencies, forensic scientists must be jacks of all trades. However, in large city departments, they can specialize and offer in-depth analysis of particular forensics. Those focusing on firearms and tool marks can determine the firearm used in a crime by analyzing the patterns left by its barrel on a bullet. Trace evidence specialists examine microscopic fibers, powders, food, explosives, pollen, paint and other substance to determine their connection to a crime. DNA analysts examine the deoxyribonucleic acid left on blood and other body substance and match it to an individual through computer databases. Drug, alcohol and toxicology specialists focus on pills, liquids and powders to determine if they are controlled substances.
You can enter the forensics field with as little as a high school diploma in small and rural departments. However, most agencies require at least a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or a related natural science, such as biology or chemistry. Some applicants are sworn police officers who have training from their police academies and law enforcement experience. Whatever your previous background, you undergo on-the-job training. This can last a few months, for such specialties as DNA analysis, or up to three years, as in firearms analysis. You must pass a proficiency exam before you are allowed to work independently and testify in a specialty.
Aurelio Locsin has been writing professionally since 1982. He published his first book in 1996 and is a frequent contributor to many online publications, specializing in consumer, business and technical topics. Locsin holds a Bachelor of Arts in scientific and technical communications from the University of Washington.