The Challenges and Rewards of Forensic Science
To me, the single biggest challenge to becoming a forensic scientist is the breadth of information that must be learned to work in a laboratory. Whether the evidence is natural, like blood, or manufactured, like metals and plastics, or a bit of both, like a baseball bat, the knowledge a forensic scientist needs to have about the world is daunting. Add to that the unknowable, such as how these things were used to commit a crime and the profession can be as difficult as it is thrilling. Think of the items that were just mentioned in the following hypothetical scenario: A lover’s argument turns deadly when the male grabs a wooden baseball bat and starts swinging it violently around the kitchen, breaking various things. She grabs a knife, cuts him and he bleeds. Now his anger focuses on the woman, who he savagely beats with the bat and then leaves through the side door. Only two witnesses have seen the crime occur; one of them is dead. The forensic scientist must help the police reconstruct the criminal events without ever having seen what happened. What happened first? What happened next? What is evidence – information that would make one or more propositions more or less likely – and what is just “background noise?” This is why I refer to forensic science as “short-term archaeology”: Both sciences must reconstruct past events through the physical remnants of those activities. Archaeology calls those physical remnants “artifacts;” in forensic science, they’re called “evidence.” To help solve this crime, the forensic scientists must know about blood, ceramics, glass, metal, as well as fluid dynamics and physics (for bloodstain pattern analysis), fingerprints (on the knife, the bat, the door), not to mention what the forensic pathologist must know to perform the autopsy. This is what makes forensic science fascinating to me: It involves nearly everything in the world. If you like to learn, forensic science is a difficult but reward career.
More importantly, forensic science directly helps to make society better, either by helping to find and convict the guilty or to exonerate the innocent. It is used to make our country safer, stop criminals, support the rule of law and our courts, and give the public a greater sense of security.
If I were to start my career over again, I might do a few things differently. First, I’d take more math and statistics courses in college because forensic science is increasingly leaning on these tools to provide a quantitative significance to its findings. I also might have gotten my Ph.D. earlier (it gets harder to find the opportunity when you have a job). I often tell students that I would have gotten a Bachelor of Science in chemistry and a Bachelor of Arts in art history and then worked my way into tracking down fake artwork and artifacts – what a fascinating job that would be. This highlights a point I often make, that the most interesting things happen between disciplines, like combining chemistry with art or psychology with economics (decision making) or manufacturing and forensics (my Ph.D. dissertation). When someone tells me to “think outside of the box,” I tell them, “There is no box.”
The best professional decisions I have made all involved making the best of what others thought I could do. I never imagined I would work at the FBI Laboratory but, in a class at Quantico, a couple of the instructors encouraged me to do so – and I did. People underestimate what they can accomplish and what they can endure. If you take a chance and it doesn’t work out, learn what you can, do your best, and look to your next opportunity. Looking back on my career, it seems like that was my philosophy but I certainly did not realize at the time.