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Solving scientific mysteries as a medical examiner

As the chief medical examiner for the District of Columbia, Roger A. Mitchell, Jr.'s job is to solve the mysteries of unexpected or violent deaths. He does so through careful surgery and analysis of evidence from human remains coupled with information from the victims’ families and law enforcement. “The coolest thing about my job is that my death investigation starts with a phone call from either the police or a hospital and at the end of the day, my cause or manner of death could be a 5-micron thick section under my microscope,” he says.

To date, Mitchell has performed more than 1300 autopsy examinations, overseen about 30,000 death investigations, and provided expert testimony in countless court cases. But what Mitchell values most in his job is the service he provides to victims’ families and the broader community. “The type of deaths we deal with—sudden, unexpected, and violent deaths—invariably come with many questions,” Mitchell says. “The truth we find is an unbiased truth that is based in medicine and science, and the service that we provide is [to people] who are at their most vulnerable—when they need closure and answers.” To Mitchell, the profession has offered a unique opportunity to combine his somewhat disparate interests in science, medicine, and community service.

Science and medicine

Science and medicine have always been closely intertwined in Mitchell’s life. “At 7 years old, I have a picture of me with a Fisher-Price stethoscope on,” says Mitchell, whose grandfather was one of the first black physicians in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the 1930s. Mitchell also recalls always being drawn to investigations of nature. “I liked doing experiments, looking at my little microscope in my room.”

Seeing science “as the vehicle towards becoming a physician,” Mitchell pursued an undergraduate degree in animal biology and zoology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He would spend his Saturday mornings in the lab conducting microbiology experiments and got exposed to the science of DNA during a summer internship at the university’s Center for Sickle Cell Disease. All along, Mitchell also worked as an electrocardiogram technician at a local hospital. “I was surrounded by physicians, nurses, scientists, lab techs,” he recalls. “I was in the science-medicine-health world, really all my time in undergrad,” adds Mitchell, who in 2014 self-published an autobiography, entitled The Price of Freedom: A Son’s Journey.

The internship, combined with the O.J. Simpson trial, which took place in the mid-1990s when Mitchell was still an undergraduate, set his path toward a career in forensic science. As the former football player was being tried for allegedly murdering his ex-wife and her friend, Mitchell recalls how the controversy surrounding the defense’s claim of a “mishandling of forensic evidence” including blood samples resonated with him. “The scientist in me wanted to understand the unknown and make it known,” he says. “I wanted to … be a part of this new thing called forensic science and see if there was a future there [for me].”

Roger A. Mitchell Jr.

Roger A. Mitchell Jr.

Courtesy of Roger A. Mitchell Jr.

So, upon graduating, Mitchell took a forensic biologist job processing evidence from crime scenes at the DNA unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Washington, D.C, one of the few places where such positions did not require that he be on a police force, he says. His work involved interacting with medical examiners (also called forensic pathologists), which quickly illuminated for him an elegant way to carve a career combining science and medicine. Medical examiners regularly rely on scientific skills to solve medical mysteries, and Mitchell realized that “I can go to medical school, and I can still be a forensic scientist.”

Mitchell enrolled at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark (now New Jersey Medical School) in 1998. Doubts about becoming a forensic pathologist, however, crept in as he started to develop an interest and aptitude in trauma surgery. To figure out which career would be the best fit, Mitchell took a 1-year sabbatical to pursue a clinical fellowship in surgical pathology at New York University. Once there, he realized that becoming a medical examiner would allow him to pursue his interest in trauma surgery, too. For him, there wasn’t “too much of a difference between being a trauma surgeon of the dead and a trauma surgeon of the living,” he says.

Upon receiving his M.D. in 2003, Mitchell pursued a residency in pathology at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. He then took a fellowship in forensics in the Office of Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, followed by a string of positions in the medical examiner offices of Houston and Newark. He became the chief medical examiner for Washington, D.C., in 2014.

Today, Mitchell oversees a team of forensic investigators (who may have undergraduate or graduate degrees in forensic science), board-certified forensic pathologists, and toxicologists. He also interacts with a broad swath of the community including law enforcement officers, government representatives, and families of the deceased.

Community service

Mitchell started nurturing an interest in serving others during his time at the FBI, where he became an employee assistance program coordinator for his unit. In this role, he assisted FBI agents who were suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder following exposure to violence, death, or discharging their weapon, and he guided them to access mental health care.

While poring over cases associated with violent crime at the bureau, Mitchell also noted “a trend in that this violence was taking place in communities of color and poor white communities,” he says. “This exposure led me to believe that violence was something that … could be prevented.” This sparked in Mitchell yet another interest in the public health approach to preventing violence. “It requires contributions from all sectors—including education, economics, housing, health care, criminal justice, social services, and environmental services. It requires input from government and community,” he says. Upon returning to medical school after his 1-year sabbatical, Mitchell became the violence prevention chairman for the Student National Medical Association, helping write policy papers and develop violence prevention workshops for at-risk and incarcerated youth.

To this day, Mitchell continues to inform public policy and put in place violence prevention initiatives. One of the things that sets him apart is his devotion to community, says Robert L. Johnson, who is the current dean of New Jersey Medical School and has known him since Mitchell was a medical student. In addition to being “a very good pathologist,” Mitchell “is able to go to the next step,” Johnson adds. “He serves as a mentor to young people at risk of engaging in violence, and he is working with community groups to make them aware of the occurrence of violence … [and] to develop approaches to solving some of the problems. He has a passion for what he’s doing, and he’s able to execute this passion.”

Today, first and foremost, Mitchell says, “I still consider myself a forensic scientist. But I chose to maximize my degree and the service of the profession by becoming a physician.” He encourages other scientists “to not go with the herd. Part of the scientist’s makeup is to find our own way,” Mitchell adds. “The experiment of my life is not one that came with a plan or a method that was developed by someone else. It truly was trial and error and going the best way I saw fit for me as an individual.”

This is the first installment in our “Clandestine Careers” series, highlighting scientists who have taken their careers in particularly unusual directions.