A CSI reference here is inevitable — but after a wave of such intriguing shows, who isn’t curious about the career of a forensic scientist? Beyond the lab work, report writing, and court appearances, you may be surprised to learn it also involves continuous training, teaching, and possibly management. And despite what we see on TV, the lab folks aren’t actually involved in shoot outs and knife fights.
In the RCMP’s Ottawa laboratory, forensic analysts wearing white lab coats, masks, and gloves have to wipe down the counter every time they take out a piece of evidence to examine. If they look at a different piece of evidence afterwards, they need to change their gloves and wipe down the counter again. This is a job for people who can follow procedures.
DNA is the most common type of evidence nowadays. Amy Ward, a biology forensic specialist for the RCMP, says this career is a good combination of lab and desk work, and there’s “never a dull moment.” After attaining her Bachelor’s of Science in Biochemistry and Biotechnology from Carleton University, she looked into the forensics opportunities with the RCMP. Ward started out in the analysis unit, generating DNA typing profiles from the biological material. She has since moved to the reporting unit, where she obtains DNA typing profiles electronically from the analysis unit, then uses specific software to interpret the profiles. By comparing profiles from crime scene samples to known samples, she determines whether they match. If they don’t, the individual is excluded.
“If there is a match, I would apply a statistical significance to the match. So how rare is this profile in the population?” explains Ward. “Upon doing that, I would issue a report and it would go back to the police agency.”
There’s a lot of versatility to her job. Sometimes she goes to police colleges to educate them on how the laboratory works. Then there are court appearances. Ward says it can be nerve-wracking, and involves much preparation. Similar to studying, she goes over notes, documentation and guidelines ahead of time. She says you’re like a teacher in court, because you’re viewed as the topic expert. “You’re there to teach them the results and explain it to them so they can make an informed decision.”
Steen Hartsen, a forensic DNA analyst at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, says, “There’s just so many things that could potentially go wrong or potentially become an issue in court ... so you have to be very detail oriented.”
The lab in which Hartsen works is an academic one, that deals mostly in complex human remains cases. Hartsen says it’s always interesting to see these stories come up in the news when he’s done work on the case. “And it’s rewarding to make that connection where you can identify somebody and give some grieving family the closure they’re looking for.”
Associate Dean of the Science and Technology program at BCIT, Dean Hildebrand, says a big benefit of being a forensic analyst is the job’s uniqueness. “There are very few people in society who get to peek behind the scenes of a complex forensics investigation,” he said.
Yet there are some challenges to landing this unique position. Steen points out that the industry standards and technology are always changing, so you have to keep up. Then there’s the limited amount of positions. Academic labs such as the one at BCIT are rare, leaving the RCMP, which has limited lab locations across Canada, as the major employer in Canada. And their hiring process can be tedious.
Ward explains, “They look for individuals who possess integrity, honesty, professionalism, compassion, respect, and accountability. These are the six core values of the RCMP, and all of these will be assessed in a suitability interview.”
Then you need to meet the position’s education and language requirements, undergo a medical examination, and a security personnel suitability interview. The whole process can take up to six months. Not including prior education, the RCMP has a mandatory structured training program for all biology staff too. It involves reading assignments, mock trials, and practical exercises and examinations that simulate casework. Then, a final qualifying examination. It’s approximately six months for search technologists and analysts to become qualified, and about 12 months for a reporting scientist.
But Ward describes it as a well-rounded opportunity, and rewarding to be involved in the safety of the community. Since July 2011, she’s been in an acting management role where she oversees all work carried out by team members and manages day to day operations of the team. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what the CSI role is really like.