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 August 28, 2019

Best Rated

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 about 6 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.

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

Asked by Terrio over 6 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.

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 6 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.

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

Asked by MissPink over 6 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.

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. almost 6 years ago

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

In your professional opinion is a degree (undergrad) in biology favored over a degree in forensic science?

Asked by Denise Olivas over 6 years ago

No, I wouldn't say so. I never use a lot of what I learned in biology on the job. It depends much more on where the degree is from, how many years it took, and how much practical experience in crime scene and lab work was included in the curriculum. You might want to call the crime labs you'd want to work at and ask what kind of degrees their employes have.

what type of issues in the forensic science field are still lurking around that cause errors in assumptions or holding progress in a certain study behind

Asked by bob almost 6 years ago

I can't think of anything that's industry-wide. Errors in assumptions can be made at any time by any body--like, I might assume you aren't going to get DNA off a gun trigger because I never have, while a brand-new person might assume you will get it regardless of any other factors because a textbook said it was possible, and we both might be wrong or right in that particular case but not others. So most errors would be made by assuming something can't be done, either because a tech or officer never had any luck with it or because they aren't up with the latest information, which will happen anywhere because no one can keep up with anything. As for study, the only thing holding that back is what's always been holding it back--time and money.  Most of us can barely keep up with our caseload, much less take on a research project, and most government budgets have been battered down to sustenence level. It's getting better as the economy improves, and there are major research projects underway through the various forensic organizations, FBI and NIJ.