How Working in a Crime Lab Changed Me
I’ve had many jobs in my lifetime. My part-time jobs have included detassling (bonus points if you know what this is), waitressing, mail room clerk at college, science tutor, and meat and cheese tray maker. After college, I worked as a lab tech in a parasite lab and taught science. I learned something about myself in each and every one of these jobs, but none of them changed me the way working in a crime lab did.
In this post, I share with you how working in a crime lab for 7 years as a forensic DNA analyst changed me. I changed certain aspects of my lifestyle, and how the experience changed the way I think. I hope you can use this information to help develop your forensic and crime scene characters when writing your mystery novels.
I also asked my forensic and crime scene colleagues to weigh in and curated a list of their responses.
The lists below include both lighthearted and heavy topics. One item talks about a sexual assault of a child case. I’ve prefaced it with [Trigger warning].
Changes in Me
- I am an excellent present wrapper. We had to seal a lot of evidence, sometimes in inventive ways.
- I never use cheap packing tape. I buy the good stuff (heavy-duty Scotch if you’re curious).
- When I mail large envelopes/packages, I seal them like evidence.
- I pick hairs off people and do a quick visual check of the root to see if it’s good enough for DNA. (They’re usually not, but it’s fun to look.)
- I label food, toiletries, and medicine/supplements with the date I open them.
- I know a lot more about street drugs and paraphernalia. I was very sheltered growing up, and my time in the lab was very eye-opening with regard to crime. I found it both fascinating and appalling. I realized I was very lucky to grow up in a small town where nothing bad really happened (except the occasional car accident).
- In crime labs/law enforcement, writing mistakes must be crossed out with one line and dated and initialed to show what was changed, who made that change, and on what date that change was made. When I first left the crime lab, I did this all the time for several years. I’ve stopped dating the changes, but I still use only one solid line and usually initial it.
- I rarely use pencil for writing. It can be changed with tracking who did it.
- I sign official/important documents with blue ink. Then I know which one is the original and which one isn’t.
- I very rarely throw papers away in case I need them. Documentation is a big thing in forensic science.
- I am a troubleshooting guru. When something goes wrong in the lab, you have to spend a lot of time testing different solutions and chatting with tech support. You can only change one variable at a time, and it can drag on. Once I had to troubleshoot why the data on our genetic analyzers wasn’t working. It took 3 weeks. Weeks! Not days.
- About a year after I started working at the crime lab, I stopped telling people what I did because of their reaction. They’d always say “Oh, like CSI!” and get all excited. Working in a crime lab is most definitely not like CSI. Forensics isn’t glamorous in the least.(If you want to read about other CSI myths, check out this post). I used to tell people I worked in a boring ole DNA lab.
- I am very hypervigilant. I never leave my car, house, etc., unlocked.
- I am paranoid about people I don’t know, especially men. Once I get to know them and deem them as non-creepy, then it’s fine.
- I avoid locations (neighborhoods, businesses, and sometimes entire towns) where I know violent crimes occur.
- [Trigger warning here] I am appalled by the things that humans do to each other, especially to children. One case I worked that I will never forget involved the homicide of an 8-year-old girl. Her stepfather had been sexually abusing her, and she threatened to tell, so he killed her with a shovel. I had to analyze that shovel and a bunch of other evidence. This case seriously bummed me out. She was only 8. The suspect plead guilty (so no trial) and is now in jail.
- I was a big true crime fan when I first started working at the crime lab, but I stopped reading/watching it after about a year of working there. A forensic DNA analyst works a lot of violent crime cases. I saw the results of real violence every day. I didn’t need to watch TV shows or read more about it when I wasn’t at work. I recently started reading/watching it again about 3-4 years ago. However, I stick to the “cozier” shows, such as reruns of Bones, Castle, and Monk. I really like the characters. The murder aspect is just par for the course. I flat-out refuse to watch Law and Order: SVU. I recently got back into Criminal Minds, but I take periodic breaks. That’s some twisted (but very interesting) stuff.
- I have way more respect for law enforcement now.
- I am more patient. Working for a government agency means everything progresses very slowly. It was maddening sometimes. But stuff eventually gets done.
- I am filled to the brim with random PSAs:
- Lock your doors. Lock them every single time. Seriously!
- Don’t get into cars with strangers. Even if it’s raining and your car broke down. (This was the beginning of a case where I ended up testifying for 4.5 hours.)
- Know who your children hang out with (especially the other adults at their friends’ houses), and be aware of who you bring into your own house.
- Be thorough in vetting your childcare provider.
- Don’t drink too much when you go out.
- Did I mention lock your doors???
- Before the crime lab, my thought process was black and white. Everything was very clearly right or wrong, with no in-between. There was a specific way to approach everything. Now, not everything is so cut and dried.
- I sometimes long for my old ignorance about all the crime that happens every day. Most people are blissfully unaware of all the crime that goes on where they live (including my own family). I know too much.
- I find the smell of bleach comforting because then I know the area is clean. Not just regular clean, but DNA analyst clean.
- I am very good at cleaning. You might even say that I’m a disinfecting genius. The DNA section in a crime lab has to decontaminate its labs every week. This meant that every possible surface that a person could touch, including light switches, drawer/cupboard handles, refrigerator doors, phone, anything, was cleaned with a DNA-killing solution (at least 10% bleach). When we were processing a case, our work areas and tools had to be cleaned between every item.
- I am very leery of used/shared bedding in hotels. I perform a close inspection each and every time I stay in one.
Changes in Others
I asked some colleagues of mine how their lives had changed since they started working in forensics. They work in crime labs and as crime scene investigators (some of whom are sworn). Many of their responses were similar to mine. However, there were a few responses that stood out that I hadn’t thought of.
- One person puts tamper-evident seals on everything and looks for bodies in the grass and trees when she’s driving.
- Someone signed his mortgage papers with a badge number.
- One respondent said she envisions having to call in a wellness check when she can’t contact people after a few days of trying.
- Going to Walmart to look at shoes for a footwear case isn’t out of the question.
- People are hyperaware of local news as it directly affects their job. (I used to get excited when I saw one of my cases on TV.)
- Someone signed her last name on birthday cards to her own family.
- People are more hypervigilant about their surroundings.
- One guy taps his shirt for his uniform pen holder even when he’s not wearing his uniform.
- One woman said that when she sees people walking with their heads down looking at their phones, she thinks she’ll see them again when they get robbed.
- One of my old grad school classmates said it feels weird to reach into freezers at the grocery store without gloves. When she sees missing persons cases on the news, she says “I hope they collected reference samples” out loud.
- One woman talks in 10-code to people she feels comfortable with. (They’re not actually her co-workers and don’t understand 10-code.) She also knows the telltale signs that a vehicle was stolen and points out probable stolen cars to the people she’s with.
- One guy only stays at five-star hotels and inspects the linens very closely.
- One respondent said she is really good at finding lost articles in the grass (jewelry, small toys, etc.) because she’s done so many grid/line searches.
- One woman is very specific about making grocery lists for her husband. She added Coke to the list but changed it to “Coca-Cola” because “Coke” is ambiguous. She tried to explain why she did it, and her husband was highly amused, as he was unlikely to get confused, since coke (the drug) isn’t available at grocery stores.
Do any of these behaviors surprise you? Let me know in the comments below!