What do Forensic Scientists do?

As we go about our daily lives, we might not always notice all the things we leave behind; from our fingerprints on the doorknobs to a hair on the floor, or even the sweat on our clothes.

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We might not always notice the clues we leave behind. Credit: Wikimedia/Syker Fotograf

If you have ever found yourself hooked to a late-night crime show, you might already know that any good investigation has a whole team of people that sift through these seemingly unimportant bits of evidence to solve a crime. But don’t be fooled! While the detectives on TV might tell you it can all be done from start to finish within a matter of hours (or sometimes even minutes!), making sense of evidence in the real world takes a whole lot of time, skill, and critical thinking.

Welcome to the fascinating work of a forensic scientist!

Who are forensic scientists?

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Who are forensic scientists? Credit: Wikimedia/USFWS/Ashland

Forensics is the very science that makes investigative crime shows, podcasts, and books just so thrilling! The field draws from biology, chemistry, and physics in order to deliver justice for those who need it. It’s also a diverse field that includes disciplines like psychology and anthropology.

Forensic scientists, who are also sometimes referred to as criminalists, help collect and analyze data using a scientific method. Their work often requires them to visit the scene of the crime to capture the evidence they find and bring it back to their lab.

There, they first have to figure out the right tests to run that can help professionals like detectives, lawyers, and judges come to the right answer! These specialized tests help study a range of different samples: bodily fluids, hair, bullets, chemicals, footprints, clothes, and the list goes on! Sometimes, they might also have to reconstruct entire crime scenes! Then, they spend time carefully preparing reports that detail what they collected, what they found, why they used those specific tests and tools, and finally, their conclusions.

However, their job doesn’t end there. Often, criminalists are asked to show up in court as an expert witness to testify. Under oath, they not only state the results of their elaborate tests, but also offer their expert opinion about what those results mean.

So, how exactly can you become a forensic scientist?

On becoming a forensic scientist!

You might have already guessed that it takes quite a bit of skill and study to do the kind of work that forensic scientists do!


If you want to build a career in forensics, you need to start with a strong background in the sciences. If you’d like to dip your toes into the world of forensics, there are even forensics degree programs you could apply to. Generally, it could also be a great idea to earn a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences, like physics or chemistry. If you’d like, you can even find programs that offer you a mix of legal studies and science. Not only do these degrees help you build skills you’d need in the lab, they can help you ask important questions about the information you have in front of you. You may also need to work on a certification in forensics to showcase your abilities.

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Forensic science is a hands-on field. Credit: Wikimedia/IAEA Imagebank

Since forensic science is a hands-on field, internships can help you practice and observe the work you have set out to do. They can also help you network with people who are already experts in the field. Opportunities like this can pave the way to building skills around communication, or even give you a chance to see what it really feels like to set foot in a crime scene.


Now, you’re ready to find a job as a promising forensic scientist! Most people in forensics take up jobs working with crime labs in their states, or even federal law enforcement agencies. Some people find employment in medical labs or even have an independent consultancy.


You can also find forensic scientists in places you might not think to look! With a field as diverse as forensics, you can often find specializations that use the backbone of forensics to solve some very particular problems. For example, you could step into forensic accounting, a field that works on finances and assets to figure out where the missing money went and how it happened. If you have a soft spot for animals, you might like veterinary and wildlife forensics, a discipline that helps solve crimes related to the mistreatment of animals. Fields like this require a lot more of an educational background, and it’s usually helpful to have a master’s degree in that specialization!

Meet some of the women of forensic science

While forensic science might seem like a tough career to take up because of the kind of dedication and skill it needs, it is most certainly an attractive prospect. Particularly, the world of forensics seems to be appealing to women. Nearly 74% of all forensic science graduates are women who go on to take leading posts in top agencies like the FBI or the DEA. Many scientists attribute their interest in the field to the fact that it is a meaningful way to improve society and help others. It has given rise to many role models to look up to!

Frances Glessner Lee

Often called the “Mother” of forensics, Frances Glessner Lee started exploring forensics at the age of 44! Lee not only made history by becoming the first female police captain in the United States back in 1943, she also spent her time pushing for a more scientific approach to investigating crimes like murder. She even helped found the department of legal medicine in universities like Harvard. Her most famous contributions to forensics were the “Nutshell studies of Unexplained Deaths.”

One of Frances Glessner Lee’s dioramas – The Red Bedroom. Credit: Wikimedia/Lorie Shaull

Lee created tiny but extremely detailed dioramas of homicide crime scenes that were made to train investigators to “convict the guilty, clear the innocent, and find the truth in a nutshell.” Lee’s dioramas had thought of everything, from patterns of blood spatters to the positions of bullet holes, to a slight change on the window latch. These nutshells helped train professionals to canvass the crime scene properly, look for the small details, and handle evidence carefully, and they offered tools to use science as a way of solving a homicide. Lee’s work is often still used to train forensic specialists today!

Clea Koff

Clea-Koff
Clea Koff, Credit: TheBoneWoman

Clea Koff is a forensic anthropologist with degrees from institutes like Stanford University and the University of Arizona. When she was 23 years old, as a fresh Ph.D. student, she was one of 16 forensic experts working for the United Nations who were tasked with uncovering victims of the genocide that took place in Rwanda. This was the first international team that was set up to uncover and analyze evidence of war crimes since World War II. Her role in this team was to gather evidence to not only prosecute the guilty but to help relatives identify their loved ones.

 

In 2005, Koff also began the non-profit organization called The Missing Persons Identification Resource Center (or MPID for short) in Los Angeles, USA. The organization was set up with the goal to unite families of missing persons with the coroner’s office.


Since then, Clea Koff has gone on to write stories about her experiences in the form of fiction and non-fiction as a way to document her life and inspire readers.

Glossary

Anthropology – The scientific study of humanity


Coroner
– A government official who is allowed to conduct a study into the manner and cause of death of a person


Diorama
– Miniature 3D replica of a scene      


Evidence
– Any clue that helps prove if something is true or not


Forensic accounting
– A field of study that investigates financial information to solve a crime


Psychology
– The scientific study of mind and behavior


Veterinary and wildlife forensics
– A field of scientific investigation into crimes around wildlife and animals

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 8.2


Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 61.3

Contributors

  • Swarna Ramakrishnan
    Swarna Ramakrishnan has been fascinated by the natural world ever since she was a young girl! She graduated from Azim Premji University, India with a Bachelor’s in Biology and a minor in applied mathematics. During her research, she trekked through the beautiful forests of the Western Ghats in India to answer questions about stomata and climate change. Currently, she is pursuing her Master’s in Biophysics from Ulm University, Germany. Swarna writes for Smore magazine to spread stories of nature in hopes of inspiring the next generation of scientists!

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