forensic chemist

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Overview

The word forensic gained notoriety when the TV show CSI:Las Vegas was launched in October 2000 on CBS. Due to the popularity of the Las Vegas show, CBS spawned CSI: Miami and NY, lasting ten and nine seasons respectively. Obviously, the shows revolve around the theme of solving crimes through the use of forensic analysis. Integral in this endeavor is the application of chemistry in determining the perpetrators. Very often, the strength of a prosecution rests on the ability of law enforcement personnel to connect the accused with the victim by matching physical evidence from the crime scene or victim with trace evidence found on or about the person accused of the crime.

Forensic investigators consult a wide range of experts who analyze evidence collected at crime scenes and brought to the crime laboratory for examination. Forensic chemists perform specialized analyses to identify materials and learn the nature of such evidence. A highly trained forensic chemist can determine the composition and nature of materials and predict the source as well as matching sample against sample. Modern chemistry employs a wide range of analytical techniques along with traditional methods of analysis. This science has evolved exponentially since the Mary Blandy trial (England) of 1752 when an actual chemical test for poison (arsenic) was first used. Miss Blandy was found guilty of poisoning her father and was hanged for her crime.

Modern forensic chemistry encompasses organic and inorganic analysis, toxicology , arson investigation, and serology (study of plasma serum and other bodily fluids). Each method of analysis uses specialized techniques and instrumentation. The process may be as simple as setting up a density gradient column to compare soil samples or as complicated as using a mass spectrometer or neutron activation analysis to characterize an unknown substance.

Education

For the student seeking a future in the field of forensic chemistry, he/she will need at least a bachelor’s degree. One example is the course offered by Loyola University in New Orleans. Their program seeks to provide students with an excellent education in chemistry with specialization in forensic science. Within their department of  Humanities and Natural Sciences, Loyola began offering in 1999 a degree track in forensic chemistry. This program provides students with a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry, focusing on forensic analytical techniques used in the field and in the laboratory. Graduates leave the program with both specialized chemical knowledge and substantial laboratory experience.

As one can surmise, the Loyola forensic chemistry concentrates on: General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Forensic Methods and Biochemistry. According to their curriculum, additional coursework covers: Instrumental Analysis, Biochemistry and Genetics or Human Mind and Behavior.

Regardless of the college of choice, students who select a forensic chemistry major are given a foundation in theoretical and experimental chemistry, which requires many hours spent in a laboratory. Lab work includes the studies of chemical properties, evidence collection and specimen testing. Students are also taught effective methods of translating the highly technical laboratory information into terms that can be understood in a courtroom.

For those pursuing a master’s degree, Columbia College in Washington, D.C. offers a Master of Forensic Science in Forensic Chemistry. Their graduate program is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC). The master’s curriculum is designed to train students to become laboratory analysts in the fields of forensic drug chemistry or trace evidence analysis. Drugs and their analyses are presented to the students through courses in medicinal chemistry and through the special topics course on the analysis of dosage forms of drugs. Trace evidence analysis is covered in three courses:

  1. Trace Evidence (hair and fibers)
  2. Forensic Chemistry I (glass and soil)
  3. Forensic Chemistry II (paper, paint, ignitable liquids and explosive residues)

Employment

Several federal law enforcement agencies hire forensic chemists: Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), to name a few. Looking at the DEA, according to their website, www.drugenforcementedu.org, an entering chemist could expect a salary between $62,909 and $81,779.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t paint as rosy a picture of the occupation of Forensic Science Technician, as they report the job growth at only 6% or 700 jobs through 2022. Their 2012 median salary figure was $52,840 with a Bachelor’s degree.

Conclusion

For the student seriously considering this profession, we recommend reading the information provided by the American Chemical Society (ACS) at www.acs.org. Their site encapsulates the profession of forensic chemistry from work conditions to beneficial skills such as public speaking.