To the general public, forensic science often represents a group of efficient and dedicated lab coat-wearing super sleuths who can solve the most intricate of crimes from the most minute amounts of material (CSI, Crossing Jordan, etc.). Unfortunately, these programs give an unrealistic impression that forensic science is a scientific branch of its own that employs extraordinary individuals who always achieve a miraculous result. This is no truer for forensic science than it is for the practice of medicine, clinical laboratory science, nursing, or any of the other allied health sciences. Not every day is filled with miracles; however, there are times when miracles occur in all professions.
Forensic science is the application of science in legal proceedings. Thus any form of science such as clinical laboratory science, medicine, dentistry, biology, chemistry, and engineering can use the title “forensic”. Forensic science is an umbrella term for many distinct disciplines that may be used to aid in the determination of a court case.
Unlike the characters on television and in the movies, the forensic scientist is usually confined to a particular discipline and often to a specialty within that discipline. Disciplines of primary concern to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) include: criminalistics, engineering sciences, jurisprudence, odontology, pathology/biology, physical anthropology, psychiatry and behavioral science, questioned documents, and toxicology.
One can arbitrarily divide forensic science into three broad groups: medical, laboratory, and field services. These are not exclusive divisions and there may be overlap between divisions. Furthermore, a number of different forensic disciplines may be involved in the investigation of a case depending on the type of evidence detected at and recovered from a scene.
Field sciences may include crime scene investigation that incorporates areas such as fire and explosion scenes and secret drug laboratories. Examples of medical services are pathology, psychiatry, psychology, forensic medicine and dentistry. Laboratory services include chemistry, biology, toxicology, ballistics, fingerprints, questioned documents and marks and impressions.
Clinical laboratory scientists make excellent forensic scientists because of the vast array of skills acquired and developed in clinical laboratory science programs. These skills are easily transferable to a forensic science laboratory.
The minimum education required is a bachelor’s degree in a physical or applied science such as clinical laboratory science. However, advanced degrees are desirable and are available at a number of different universities including The University of South Alabama. Following employment, training is available from many agencies including DEA, FBI, California Criminalistics Institute, and at Regional Societies’ meetings. Active participation in professional organizations and continuing education is highly recommended. Certification in specialized areas is highly desirable.
For a list of colleges and universities that offer both undergraduate and graduate program in forensic science within the United States as well as internationally, visit: www.aafs.org, click on resources, and select colleges and universities. In many states, a baccaulareate degree in clinical laboratory sciences is considered a highly desirable credential for employment as a forensic scientist.
Forensic scientists are employed by: regional, state, and local forensic laboratories; district attorney’s offices; private firms; colleges and universities; the military; and, federal agencies (DEA, Customs, FBI, Postal Service).