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Forensic Science: What You Need To Know To Be A Forensic Scientist

I am the director of the Forensic Science Unit that is part of the Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry at Strathclyde University in Glasgow. I first became interested in forensic science when, at the age of 13, I had access to a book called Criminal Investigation by Hans Gross; from that time there was no other career which, to me, offered the same level of interest or challenge. After studying at Glasgow University for an Honours degree in chemistry, I studied for my doctorate in the Department of Forensic Medicine and Science. My research was in toxicology, and in addition to research I was able to carry out routine analyses under supervision. I eventually became a staff member there and moved to Strathclyde University, where the forensic science unit is, some 10 years later.

Most of my teaching is to students studying for the master's degree in forensic science. The prime entry requirement is that the student has a good Honours degree, 2-1 or better, in a relevant subject such as chemistry, biochemistry, or molecular biology. However, such is the diversity of forensic science that graduates with other degrees are also considered. Regardless of the degree, personal attributes are also important: The ideal student is self-confident but thoughtful and has an inquiring mind. Interaction with others is important, so the student should be able to communicate fluently both in writing and in speech.

No teaching course can ever produce an expert, as not only education but also experience is necessary. However, the master's course at Strathclyde University is a foundation in the subject area and an introduction to a number of the disciplines used in forensic science. The laboratory work is mainly an application of the techniques of analytical science. In the chemistry branch, the main analytical tools are various forms of chromatography, mass spectrometry, and infrared spectrophotometry. Students learn their application when analyzing samples for dyes, such as those occurring on textile fibers; when analyzing samples for the presence of materials such as petrol which may have been used to start fires; or when testing for the presence of illicit drugs in a variety of sample types.

In the biology branch clearly a considerable amount of teaching time must be devoted to molecular biology, for DNA technology has revolutionized forensic biology during the last decade. However, there is much more to forensic biology than the application of molecular biology; for example, a study of blood splash patterns can be important in distinguishing between a villain and a good Samaritan. Other aspects of forensic science involve less common analytical techniques such as the use of comparison microscopes to examine tool marks.

If forensic science was restricted to the above, then it would be merely analytical science, but the distinguishing features of forensic science are its professional aspects. In forensic science it is very often necessary to "first find your sample," so searching for suitable samples is an integral part of the job, and with the introduction of ever more sensitive analytical techniques such samples can be smaller and smaller. Any one case may involve a wide variety of samples such as tool marks, paint, glass, textile fibers, and blood. Although it may be technically possible to analyze all of these samples, in general it is undesirable to do so, because forensic science must not only be effective; it must also be cost effective. This means that the selection of samples and analytical techniques from all those which could potentially be used is an important part of the job.

No matter how sophisticated the science and how meticulously the work is carried out, it is all to no avail if the findings cannot be communicated clearly to the courts. Communications are particularly challenging in forensic science, because the recipients may well have little or no scientific training. Communications are initially in writing and may well be followed by verbal presentation in the courts, potentially the harshest refereeing system in the world. It is not possible to teach people the necessary skills; one can only give them an opportunity to learn and guide them while they do so. At Strathclyde University we are fortunate that the Law School teaches the Postgraduate Diploma course, a part of which is Advocacy and Pleading. It is natural that the two courses should combine to run simulated cases where the two sets of students can practice their respective skills; it's even more fortunate that sheriffs are willing to give up their time to supervise the courtroom parts of these exercises.

Graduates from the course at Strathclyde University go into a wide variety of employment; this includes forensic science laboratories operated by police forces and by the Home Office Forensic Science Service, scientific support units operated by police forces to examine incident scenes. One has even trained to be a barrister. However, there is wide range of other employers working in forensic science, for example in drug screening laboratories, and some graduates have chosen this as a career. Some decide that forensic science is not for them, particularly after the experience of the courtroom training sessions, and successfully find employment in industrial analytical and research laboratories or study for higher degrees.

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