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Forensic Science: Life in the Forensics Lab



I've just walked in the door of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement forensic laboratory to spend a day on the job with Kelli Carter, a forensic technologist. Kelli has an M.S. in zoology and 5 years of experience in the health department lab. She also likes to get to work at the crack of dawn--it's 7:30 a.m.



We go to Kelli's desk where she drops off her stuff, and then we're off to the lab. The first thing I notice about the lab is that it's bright, shiny, and very clean. We check the whiteboard to see what's in store for the day. First on the list is making some reagents. We go to the corner of the lab where there are some balances. Kelli explains to me that everything is carefully recorded from the lot number on the bottle as to any changes that are made in the process of making the solution. That way, if there is a question as to whether or not something was prepared correctly, the record is available for review. The records are stored in a row of white three-ring binders above the lab bench. Kelli is making acid phosphatase, a reagent that is used to detect semen (it turns purple in the presence of semen). Kelli finishes recording and making the solution and then tests it against a standard semen sample to make sure it works properly. It does and we're onto the next thing.



Kelli explains to me that there are four new technologists in the lab. They rotate among several different areas for 1 month each: microanalysis, PCR (polymerase chain reaction), and RFLP (restriction fragment length polymorphism). Being familiar with the world of molecular biology, I know what PCR and RFLP are, but the term microanalysis is new to me. According to Kelli, microanalysis is commonly referred to as "sweeping." This means that when evidence comes in, they have to carefully go over it and look for hair and fiber. This is done in a dust-free room complete with its own ventilation system to prevent contamination. This month Kelli is on PCR detail.



Next we check out another lab where crime lab analyst Mary Ruth McMahan is extracting some DNA from bone for RFLP. Once the results are in, analysts can crank them into a huge database called CODIS, maintained by the FBI.



We break for lunch. After lunch we're up for a little PCR. To avoid contaminating the sample, we suit up in lab coats and gloves and go into a room where they quantitate DNA for the analysts doing PCR so the reaction is not overloaded.



That takes some time, and afterward we clean up some loose ends and we're done for the day.


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