Not Exactly as Seen on TV
You’re out for a walk in the woods one spring afternoon and up ahead, just off the trail you notice something that looks out of the ordinary. You decide to investigate and carefully make your way through the brush. Bending down to peer more closely at the object you suddenly realize with shock and horror that you’ve stumbled across a human skull. With shaking hands, you pull out your phone and call 9-1-1. And that’s where forensic science comes in.
An example straight from the small screen, yes, but it’s not quite that simple. Forensics is the use of scientific principles to solve crime. Forensic scientists develop and utilize advanced techniques to study and translate evidence that will be used to help establish the guilt or innocence of the accused in criminal cases, and in civil cases, the use of forensics can aid in identifying and evaluating physical evidence associated with the case.
There are a wide variety of forensic specialties but generally, students with academic achievements in chemistry, physics and biology, as well as an inquisitive nature, an interest in crime and crime-solving techniques and a desire to help others would be an ideal candidate for a career in the field of forensics.
Dr. Barbara Hewitt is an anthropologist who is currently teaching at the university level and also consults with local police and RCMP detachments when they need forensic assistance with cases.
“You have to be patient since lots of the work happens slowly. You have to be detail-oriented. Small pieces of information can be critical in a forensic case and you never really know what’s going to be important until you start putting all of the information together. You must be willing and able to not discuss the work with family and friends. Some can’t do that, and people that talk about cases tend not to last long working with law enforcement. The only time/place you should be talking about what you’ve found is with law enforcement or in the courtroom,” she explains.
There is a need for crime-solving experts in almost every field imaginable including accounting, anthropology, autopsy techniques, DNA analysis, document examination, economics, digital media, engineering, entomology, fingerprinting, linguistics, pathology and toxicology.
Forensic science traditionally includes anthropology (to identify bodies and recover remains), ballistics and firearm identification, chemistry (to determine the substances that make up a particular item), document examination (to compare writing samples, identify ink and imprints), hair and fibre analysis, odontology (to identify bite marks and tooth structure), pathology (to examine samples of body tissues and fluids in the laboratory), serology (to diagnose blood samples for the purposes of establishing immune system response to pathogens or substances) and toxicology (to determine levels of alcohol, drugs or poisons in the system).
The use of forensics is continually changing with advancements in technology and research. Many newer forensic applications being utilized today including blood stain pattern identification, biometrics (studying the personal characteristics of suspects that can be used for identification purposes like facial features, fingerprints, handwriting and voice print analysis), botany (can help locate hidden burial sites, link suspects or victims to certain areas, and help investigate drowning deaths by analyzing fluid found in the victims’ lungs), cheiloscopy (analysis of lip prints which are unique to every person), entomology (studying insects that inhabit corpses to establish time of death), geology (analyzing rocks, soil, and minerals in an attempt to link a suspect or victim with possible crime scenes), meteorology (to establish if and how weather has affected a crime), nursing (caring for victims and perpetrators of crimes, with special training in injury identification and specialization in legal matters), psychiatry (providing court-ordered assessments to determine whether someone is competent to stand trial, as well as the treatment of accused and convicted criminals) and taphonomy (the study of changes that occur to human remains post-mortem).
“I am a physical anthropologist, specializing in biogeochemistry of human remains,” Dr. Hewitt says, “I excavate and analyze human remains from archaeological sites, and look at things like how and when people moved across the land based on the biochemical signatures in their bones and teeth. When doing forensic work, I help law enforcement agencies identify and recover human remains. Most police officers are not trained to tell human bones apart from animal bones, so a lot of what I do is telling them if what they’ve found is human or not. If it is, I then analyze the bones to see if we can identify the sex, age, and other individuating features. Sometimes, we know who we are looking for but can’t find them, so I’ll advise searchers on where they should start based on how a body decomposes and moves once it’s disarticulated.”
Depending on an individual’s interests and preferences, forensic science courses are offered at the college, undergrad and graduate levels at various learning institutions across Canada.
Students wishing to pursue a career in forensic science may have a wide range of employment opportunities, from field work to a laboratory career. Not only can forensic science be used in legal matters, there are also many positions in research, quality control and medical/health applications. Occupations that are laboratory related are some of the fastest growing in the country.
In some cases, a career in forensics will be a full-time occupation but it others, like anthropology for example, it may account for only a portion of one’s work.
“In Canada, our crime rate is so low that we have almost no full time forensic anthropologists,” says Dr. Hewitt. “We are all anthropologists working at Universities who do forensic work when needed. The RCMP largely have their own forensic units, and it’s only when they need anthropological expertise that they ask us to consult with them. Generally, anthropologists who do forensic work don’t get paid for those consultations. We are sometimes compensated for court time.”
Financial remuneration for forensic work will vary with the extent of expertise required and the level of education obtained by forensic scientists.
By: Jackie Fritz