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 July 21, 2022

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Have you ever read Stiff by Mary Roach? I loved it, so interesting. What are your favorite non-fiction books about forensic anatomy?

Asked by Gwen about 11 years ago

No, I have not. I don't really have any favorites about forensic anatomy in particular, though I borrow Postmortem by Koehler & Wecht from my co-worker often. I also liked the books by Dr. Michael Baden and Dr. Thomas Noguchi. My favorite forensics book is probably Colin Beavan's Fingerprints.

Even if testing doesn't produce a database MATCH, can you tell from a fingerprint or DNA whether it belongs to a man or woman, age, race, etc?

Asked by Luisa Henson almost 11 years ago

From a fingerprint, no. From DNA, not age but they can probably make estimates that the sample likely belongs to a particular racial profile. They can also look for markers from the Y chromosome to determine gender. However I don't know if they necessarily see all these loci in every analysis. Usually in DNA testing you have samples from the crime scene, the victim and the suspect, and we want to know if this sample matches either the victim or the suspect, period. So they most likely don't test for the other factors unless requested. But I am not a DNA analyst so I could be wrong--they could be able to tell all sorts of things that they don't put in the reports because it's not relevent to our particular case.

Do fingerprints contain DNA? And if so, then isn't fingerprinting kind of obsolete, since you can just test the DNA instead of the print?

Asked by Sascha almost 11 years ago

The skin cells sloughed off and left in a fingerprint contain DNA, but there's no guarantee that there will be a sufficient amount to obtain a DNA profile so it's a risk to go straight to DNA testing instead of developing the fingerprint. Besides, identical twins will have the same DNA but different fingerprints.

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 almost 11 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.

What it was like the first time you saw a dead body? (And had you seen one before working in forensics?)

Asked by Terrio about 11 years ago

I had seen dead bodies at funerals, of course, but other than that the first time was at an autopsy. It was strange because it was one of the rare cases in which the victim practically looked like he was sleeping. Almost always a dead person LOOKS dead, you can tell at a glance (something they rarely perfect on TV). But in this case it was a young man who had simply slipped on icy steps and hit the back of his head, so that was very sad too, to think that life could be lost so easily. Otherwise the autopsy isn't that horrible--there's no gushing blood, for instance, because the heart isn't pumping. It's the smell that gets you more than anything--it's not (most of the time) so much bad as strange. I think our bodies know more than our minds at that point and they know something is wrong. So the answer is I felt a little sick, but didn't actually get sick. We'd have lots of classes (police academy, nursing students) come through the coroner's office and while many would get a little queasy and have to go sit down, we rarely had anyone actually either throw up or pass out.

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 almost 11 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.

I never understood how they establish time of death weeks after someone died. Are there biological processes that take place WEEKS after death with enough consistency to allow you to pinpoint time-of-death to within a few hours / days?

Asked by HammerPants almost 11 years ago

I'm sorry but you'd really have to ask a pathologist, this is not my area. I imagine it would depend a lot on the individual situation--the environment, temperature, humidity. Insect activity can be pretty accurate. But I believe that pinpointing to a few hours after someone has been dead for weeks only happens on TV.