Pursuing a Career and Education in Forensic Science


I became involved in forensic science unconventionally compared to many students. My interest in forensics was established after I became an analytical chemist. I developed curiosity about science through the urge to know more about our natural world. Spending most of my time outdoors while growing up in Alabama, I was fascinated by nature. This interest in science and nature was also promoted by learning about technology and how things worked. During my undergraduate studies at Gadsden State Community College, I found the most interesting subjects were chemistry and biology. Additionally, I was a mentor for middle school students attending field trips to Dauphin Island Environmental Sciences Consortium. The enthusiasm of the children learning about nature confirmed my desire to become a scientist.

I transferred to the University of Alabama, Birmingham, and continued studies in chemistry and biology. I worked in a cell biology research lab, which exposed me to scientific research and led me to make plans to attend graduate school. I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps to obtain management proficiency and financial assistance for my graduate education. I attended the department of chemistry at East Carolina University (ECU) while on active duty and following my military obligation. At that time--1997--a program was initiated allowing undergraduates to enroll in the graduate program. I completed the bachelor of science in biochemistry while pursuing a master?s degree in analytical chemistry under the direction of Dr. Yu "Frank" Yang.

My interest in forensic science originated during my studies at ECU. In the classroom and during several seminars by invited speakers, I learned how the information provided by chemical analysis is applied to various disciplines, including forensic science. In searching for Ph.D. programs, I was looking for those that would allow me to apply my experience in separations obtained from my work with Dr. Yang. In the end, I chose Ohio University in Athens, because--in addition to the attraction of research in forensic chemistry--it has an excellent and diverse analytical chemistry research program. I joined Dr. Bruce McCord?s group, where I am now developing methods for the forensic analysis of explosives using high-performance liquid chromatography with electrospray ionization mass spectrometry.

Following my first year at Ohio University, I attended an explosives detection symposium, organized by Dr. Robert Q. Thompson from Oberlin College, at the American Chemical Society National Meeting in Washington, D.C. I met researchers from academia, law enforcement, and federal agencies at the forefront of explosives analysis research. My research interest for the analysis of high explosives was shared by chemists at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, where Dr. McCord previously worked for 9 years in the Forensic Science Research Unit. The following summer I attended the Forensic Science Research and Training Center at the FBI Academy in that group, now called the Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit (CFSRU). The Visiting Scientist Program allows researchers to perform original research projects with research scientists at CFSRU. I worked closely with research chemists at the FBI Academy along with examiners in the Explosives Unit at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

At the FBI Academy, I also learned that there is a wide range of professionals in various fields contributing to forensic science. I believe I gained a great deal of valuable experience through my interaction with these scientists, instructors, and other students by learning how our work in the chemistry laboratory contributes to law enforcement. The scientists and instructors were well suited and dedicated to teaching and training at many levels within law enforcement. Several students I met at the academy participated in the FBI Honors Internship Program, which is a highly competitive program. The internships are managed through FBI Headquarters and used to provide students with applied experience within the FBI.

As a graduate student, a typical day includes planning and performing experiments related to my research project, which involves reading scientific literature. Other activities incorporated in graduate school involve teaching undergraduate laboratory classes and attending seminars both on campus and at professional meetings. Graduate study also requires a commitment to instituting and maintaining short- and long-range goals. Being a graduate student in analytical chemistry requires critical thinking, attention to detail, and taking advantage of the comprehensive learning environment throughout the university. This includes being able to learn independently and to find new possibilities for your research as the field progresses.

The professors at the universities I?ve attended have positively influenced me throughout my studies. Additionally, my contemporaries have supported my education, especially in forensics. I also consider that a significant component of learning in forensic science involves interacting with people from various fields of study. I believe that since we share a mutual purpose in helping others, the small portion of work contributed by our laboratory research is rewarding when viewed in the overall realm of forensic science. In my opinion, my work in the applied field of forensic chemistry enhances the comprehensive learning aspect of graduate study. For example, keeping up with current events can broaden research perspectives as well as aid in teaching. My research toward the forensic analysis of explosives is focused not only on advancing analytical chemistry, but more notably, on developing methods for use in crime laboratories. As new developments and requirements arise, the basic research performed in our laboratory can be applied to "real-world" problems.

I hope to be working as a forensic scientist 5 years from now, but if not I would prefer to be working in research and development. Having a wide range of opportunities in everyday work is rewarding. I hope to continue with this outlook of up-to-date challenges in my daily activity as well as working with other professionals with a common goal. Forensic science provides both.

Mr. John A. Mathis is a graduate student in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at Ohio University. For further information, please send John e-mail at john.a.mathis.1@ohio.edu.

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