Forensic Science: DNA, Drugs, and Bank Rolls


Can you have a career in money laundering and drug trafficking and still stay on the right side of the law? Yes, if your job is to the catch the bad guys!

When Phillip Cheasley * (see photo at left) completed his 3-year degree in natural sciences at the University of Bath, UK, he didn?t really know what he wanted to do. After 6 months of temping and applying for a variety of jobs, both scientific and nonscientific, he was considering returning to university to follow a masters course in forensic science, something he?d always been interested in. But then his attention was caught by an advertisement in New Scientist. A job with the DNA unit of the Forensic Science Service ( FSS) in London was, he says, "too good an opportunity to miss." The job required a minimum of four GCSEs, including maths, English, and any science subject, and although it didn?t require a degree or any specific laboratory experience, "I stressed my science background and experience in my application," he explains.

After a successful interview, Phil started work as one of 10 new employees who were split into two groups, half being trained in the "front end" process--the actual extraction of the DNA from biological samples in the laboratories--and half learning the "back end"--computer analysis of the data. Although staff start off in just one area, there is always an opportunity to learn the other skill set. "However," he says "more people make the switch from the laboratory to the office than vice versa." Despite the basic entry requirements, it soon became apparent that the majority of staff were university graduates with degrees (and sometimes masters) in a wide variety of subjects. These ranged from numerous scientific fields to other disciplines such as archaeology.

The training was excellent and was the same for everyone regardless of background. "We covered all the scientific principles behind DNA profiling, including the specialist laboratory techniques and software used, as well as learning about the history and legal status of the process," recalls Phil. "We were also encouraged to spend some time exploring the comprehensive library of forensic books and journals available."

Along with all employees, Phil attended a training course to prepare him for the possibility of having to defend his work in court. "Despite being on call several times, I was disappointed not to have been called to give evidence," he laments. "Although certainly nerve-racking, it would have been really interesting to be involved in a trial."

Phil was responsible for analysing the raw data, producing DNA profiles that were loaded directly onto the National DNA Database. The unit receives huge numbers of samples daily, which are processed in a "production line" manner and can be identified only by a unique bar code. "Although a job with the FSS sounds exciting," he says, "the day-to-day work can be quite repetitious since it is basically the same routine of preparing countless, anonymous profiles." A common complaint of the staff employed in the DNA unit is that they rarely receive feedback for their work and often have no idea whether their efforts have helped solve a crime or secure a prosecution. However, Phil was involved in a number of high-profile cases during his time at FSS and was able to follow the events in the press. "It was always interesting to read the notes that accompanied the samples, and this often gave a unique insight into the police?s investigations," he says.

When there are important cases of nationwide interest, camera teams often approach FSS for an ?inside view? of the forensic scientists at work, and this may involve being shown laboratory procedures and interviewing staff. Fifteen minutes of fame, in the press and on the television news, was an unexpected spin-off of the job. "I could often be seen in the background when interviews were taking place and even appeared in a national newspaper demonstrating a laboratory process to the home secretary," he laughs.

After 18 months with the DNA unit, Phil felt he had learnt all that the position had to offer and started to look for a new job that would once again challenge him on a daily basis. "The FSS offered steps upward to management, which I wasn?t interested in at the time," he tells Next Wave, "or the possibility of retraining as a reporting officer, which would involve liaising with the police and offering advice on individual cases, as well as presenting the evidence in court."

Then he happened to look in the Metro (a free newspaper available to London Underground travellers) and saw an advert for a job with the National Criminal Intelligence Service ( NCIS). NCIS is a multiagency organisation managed by a home office service authority, in a similar way to FSS.

Phil began working for the Economic Crime Branch (ECB), which is one of the biggest departments within NCIS, employing upwards of 80 people. "The staff range from directly-employed members like me to officers seconded from regional police forces, Customs and Excise, the Inland Revenue, and the Benefits Agency, as well as from overseas agencies such as the US Customs Service," he explains. This job, like his first, required little more than four GCSEs. However, his university background, FSS training, and experience of liaising with police officers and law enforcement professionals were an added bonus on his CV.

The job was largely computer based and involved following up suspicious transactions as reported by banks, building societies, and other financial institutions. Phil was responsible for researching and coordinating intelligence, preventing duplication of effort by police forces, and ensuring that officers working on the same case were kept informed of each other?s progress. "I didn?t need my science skills for this job, but my daily routine was similar to that in my previous position," explains Phil. "I would research large numbers of reports each day before passing on my results to the relevant law enforcement agency. I rarely received any feedback or got any indication of how my work was followed up."

Phil worked for ECB for approximately 1 year, but when he once again felt that he had learnt all the skills involved with the job, he decided that another move was due. After 2 short-term positions, he wanted a job that offered more scope for promotion and development. This came in the form of an internal transfer to one of the drug intelligence units within NCIS. "This department is significantly smaller than ECB, and consequently my role is more focused and I have greater responsibility," explains Phil. "Part of my job is to collate information on the techniques used to manufacture illicit drugs and to investigate the availability of a number of key chemicals which are essential for their production. I once again feel that my scientific background has been extremely beneficial." Phil also liaises with his old colleagues at FSS, who provide important data on the content and purity of the drugs that are seized.

"I have very much enjoyed the diverse and challenging aspects of my career so far, which I believe have reflected the broad nature of my natural sciences degree," says Phil. "Although I can?t see myself wearing a lab coat at work again, I would very much like to continue utilising and expanding my scientific knowledge in whichever occupation I pursue."

Tragically, Phil Cheasley died in a sky-diving accident on 1st June 2002. He will be sadly missed by his family, friends and colleagues.

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