Forensic Scientist

Forensic Scientist

LIsa Black

Cape Coral, FL

Female, 49

I spent the five happiest years of my life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office I analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now I'm a certified latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida. I also write a series of forensic suspense novels, turning the day job into fiction. My books have been translated into six languages.

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Last Answer on October 17, 2017

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What type of classes did you need to take to become a Forensic scientist?

Asked by Nikkie about 4 years ago

If you see the two Q&As above, you can't go wrong with science classes. When I was in college they didn't have courses specifically in forensic science, so that wasn't an option. And different agencies will have different requirements, so you might want to go online and check out the different vacancies to get some idea of what requirements are out there.

Have you become desensitized to death and violence? Are there still some crime scenes you see that make you sick because of how gory or depraved they are?

Asked by mbyrnes over 4 years ago

I don't consider myself desensitized. I still say "Oh, that's terrible," when I read about someone's death in the paper. I just don't get sick at the sight of bodily fluids. It seems like you either get used to that instantly, or you get into another line of work. It's not exactly the same thing as having a weak stomach--I've known guys who were homicide detectives for 20 years and still had a weak stomach. But when I'm standing at a crime scene there are so many things to think of (plus the overriding "Don't screw up!") that I don't have time to think about how awful this is. To me it would be more nervewracking to be an ER nurse and have someone's life depending on my instant decisions; at a crime scene, the crime has already been committed, so I couldn't have prevented it and I can't do anything about the fact that it happened. I think also that, without putting it into words, I tell myself that the person died right away. I get more upset at seeing the things the hospital did, the tubes, the halo brace, because I know the person must still have been alive for that to be done. Basically, if this work is going to upset you, do something else. It doesn't help anyone to be traumatized by your daily job.

What degree and certification would I need become a forensic scientist? I'm currently majoring in criminology, but would switch if something else was better.

Asked by Alejada over 4 years ago

Again, titles and job requirements aren't uniform, so the only way to know is to call the crime labs in your area or whereever you might be interested in working and ask them. At the coroner's office we had to have at least a bachelor's in a natural science (this was before they had forensic science majors). At the police department where I am now, they only require a high school diploma but you get more points in the interviewing process for having a four year degree, so we all have one. You can also go on the websites for professional organizations such as the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and check out their job vacancy postings and see what the various positions require. Good luck.

Do you need a person's permission to collect and test his DNA? I saw a TV show where the cops offered a suspect a drink and cigarette to try and get his DNA.

Asked by Toby over 4 years ago

The way I understand it--and I am NOT a lawyer!--is that technically you don't need permission to get a DNA sample (which is just a cotton swab rubbed on the inside of your cheek, doens't hurt) because the 5th amendment right against self-incrimination only applies to testimonial evidence. You can't be made to speak against yourself, but your fingerprints can be collected whether you like it or not so DNA should be the same. A sample can be collected from a discarded cup or can because garbage is abandoned property and can be taken by anyone. (Of course if you go through their trash cans, you can't prove that your suspect drank from that cup.)  I believe it might also be affected by whether the suspect was in custody or not at the time of collection. And it won't help to test an official sample later because if the first sample is excluded from trial, then anything collected as a result of that will be thrown out too (or so I understand from repeated viewings of Law and Order.) That said, at my agency the detectives always get the person to give consent or they get a search warrant from a judge, just so there are no issues when it gets to court. It's not worth the risk of going through all the work to get to court and then having it all thrown out, so I think those tricks are largely used only on TV. I can tell you I've never seen it happen.   

I'm in high school right now and I want to become a forensic scientist. Is there a list of courses I should be taking? Or can you recommend any courses?

Asked by Wendy N. about 4 years ago

You can't go wrong with as much biology and chemistry as you can get, plus some physics and math.

Whose payroll are forensic scientists on, the coroner's office, or the police force?

Asked by MissPink over 4 years ago

Not to sound like a smart aleck, but you're on the payroll of whoever you work for--that can be the police department, the state police lab, the coroner's or medical examiner's office, the county sheriff's department, or an independent lab (usually doing DNA). You can also be a sworn officer or a civilian employee of same. Titles are not uniform. When I was at the coroner's office my title was forensic scientist because that was what the coroner said it was. At the police department I was an evidence specialist and then became a forensic specialist after I completed my training for fingerprint analysis. Your title is whatever your boss says it is.

Have you ever worked on a scene that you'd describe as the "perfect crime" in that the perp literally left NO trace of his presence?

Asked by Seth over 4 years ago

It depends on how you define 'perfect'...if I can't tell the perpetrator has even been there then we wouldn't even know a crime has occurred, so I wouldn't know it was a perfect crime. If you mean 'perfect' in that the guy didn't leave any DNA or fingerprints that we found, sure, all the time. I've had plenty of burglaries in which it was apparent that a burglary occurred, but between humidity and surface conditions and what the perp had to touch in order to get the job done, I find no fingerprints at all (not even the people who live there). If you walk up and shoot someone (especially with a revolver, so no dropped casings) and walk away, you're not going to leave anything. Maybe a hair or a skin cell, but how would a CSI find that on a dirty street? Hence, a 'perfect' crime. Unless you get a parking ticket on the next block or a witness waiting for a pizza delivery happens to look out their window or there's an ATM camera you didn't know about.