Jumping Ship: From Neuroscience to Forensic Toxicology


References to forensic science in popular culture have increased dramatically recently, as witnessed by the proliferation of television programs, both nonfiction and fiction, based upon a forensic theme, e.g., Exhibit A, Crossing Jordan, Da Vinci?s Inquest, and CSI. (Note to self: Get one of those pocket GC-MS instruments ... ). Forensic science has also experienced increased exposure, and scrutiny, due to high-profile "celebrity" criminal trials (e.g., O. J. Simpson) and miscarriages of justice (e.g., wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin). It is because of Justice Fred Kaufman?s inquiry into the latter ("Commission on Proceedings Involving Guy Paul Morin," 1998), whose recommendations included hiring additional scientific staff at the Centre of Forensic Sciences (CFS), that I am able to write this article.

My training was directed specifically toward a career in academic science. I possess a Ph.D. in behavioural neuroscience (University of Victoria, 1993) and have held postdoctoral positions at two institutions (Neurobiology Research Center at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and Division of Cellular and Molecular Biology, Toronto Western Research Institute). After several years as a postdoc, I became weary of the perversely hypercompetitive, and somewhat fickle, nature of life as a biomedical researcher. I pursued next the private sector, that is, the pharmaceutical industry. Close, but no cigar. When I became aware that the Toxicology section of CFS in Toronto was hiring scientists, and after a positive telephone conversation with a member of the director?s office, I decided, with some trepidation, to jump ship and apply for a position. After what seemed an inordinate length of time (the wheels of government business, at times, seem to be square), I was short-listed for an interview and, eventually, hired in March 2001.

CFS, which has laboratories in Toronto and Sault Ste. Marie, is included in the newly formed Ministry of Public Safety and Security. The CFS laboratories are organized into sections specializing in biology, chemistry, documents/photoanalysis, electronics, firearms/tool marks, and toxicology, which are staffed by technologists, scientists, administrative support, and a coterie of managers. Both laboratories are accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board.

The mission of CFS is to provide excellent laboratory services in support of the administration of justice and public safety for the citizens of Ontario by: 1) providing scientific examinations and interpretations in cases involving injury or death in unusual circumstances, and in crimes against persons or property; 2) presenting independent objective expert testimony to courts in Ontario; 3) conducting research; and 4) presenting educational programs on forensic science for agencies using forensic science services.

The term "forensic" can be defined as the application of the scientific method to the investigation of death or crime. Pharmacology is the study of the effects the body produces on drugs (pharmacokinetics) and the effects drugs produce on the body (pharmacodynamics), and is concerned primarily with the therapeutic (beneficial) effects drugs produce. Conversely, toxicology is concerned with the deleterious effects drugs produce. Toxicology is a hybrid discipline, and as such, is based on a wide range of specialties. My academic training included behaviour, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, experimental design, and statistics. Any combination of these, or others (e.g., toxicology, chemistry, and biophysics), can provide a good foundation for the training in forensic toxicology that is provided at CFS. Academic programs in Canada devoted to forensic science are rare compared with other countries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States. Nevertheless, there are exceptions (see sidebar).

Academic Programs

1) The University of Toronto (Erindale College) offers an Honours B.Sc. program in Forensic Science.

2) The biology department of Laurentian University offers a forensic curriculum.

3) The British Columbia Institute of Technology, in cooperation with the Justice Institute of BC, offers a Forensic Science Technology Program.

At CFS, I was trained by senior scientists and qualified technologists in 1) theory and operation of analytical instruments and techniques (e.g., liquid chromatography, gas chromatography, mass spectroscopy, ELISA); 2) their application to forensic toxicology; 3) interpretation of results; and 4) advantages and limitations of these methods. My competency was assessed by analysing quality control samples and during oral examinations conducted by senior scientists. Additionally, I wrote over 80 reports, under the name and supervision of a senior scientist, who evaluated, then provided feedback on my interpretation of the results. I also attended policy, quality assurance, and intersectional training courses.

Because a fundamental component of the job description is providing expert witness testimony, knowledge of the role of an expert witness and court structure in Ontario is also required. Moreover, my probationary status became permanent after demonstration of competency in the role of an expert witness during a mock coroner?s inquest, which was determined by a variety of managers and a member of the director?s office.

In Canada, there is both a provincial and a federal system of forensic laboratories. Career enquiries may be addressed to the two provincial labs 1) Director, The Centre of Forensic Sciences, 25 Grosvenor Street, Toronto ON M7A 2G8 and 2) Le directeur, Laboratoire de sciences judiciaires et de médecine légale, 1701 rue Parthenais, Montréal QC H2K 2S7. Six forensic laboratories are operated by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) (Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, and Vancouver), which takes enquiries at: Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Recruiting Office, Room 164 - 250 Tremblay Road, Ottawa ON K1A 0R2. Additional information may also be obtained at the following Web sites: Canadian Society of Forensic Science and CFS.

To my delight, and relief, I discovered that a career in forensic science is highly rewarding personally and challenging intellectually. For example, in a recent case, due to the ratio of parent compound to metabolite concentration detected in the blood, I was able to clarify for the investigating coroner that this death was not consistent with an acute suicidal overdose. There are also opportunities to conduct research, albeit limited due to the time constraints of managing a caseload.

Now, please excuse me, but I have to go back to the trace evidence room, which is next to the machine that goes "ping!"

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