What Do Forensic Scientists Do?
TV shows mainly portray forensic scientists in an investigative role, where they follow clues based on the lab results to solve a crime. In each episode, there’s a little bit of lab work, they conveniently get the results they need, and then they’re off to catch the bad guy.
However, forensic scientists don’t actually investigate crimes. Investigators investigate; forensic scientists do lab work and a whole host of other job tasks.
So, what exactly did I do as a forensic scientist in the DNA section of a state crime lab for 7 years? What do forensic scientists do as part of their job?
In this post, I describe my duties as a forensic scientist in the biology/DNA unit of a small state crime lab in the Midwest.
The job tasks I describe below are performed by personnel who work in traditional crime labs. There are other areas of forensics with different work environments. You can learn more about the differences between traditional crime labs and specialized forensic disciplines in this post.
Job duties at crime labs will vary based on lab size. If the lab is small, forensic scientists will have more variety in their job tasks. Large labs have more personnel, so positions might be more specialized, and the lab will have more resources and people to cover certain tasks. I worked in a smaller lab where all the analysts took turns doing different job duties with their different disciplines.
In addition, crime labs have different approaches to casework itself.
For example, in forensic biology, the general workflow includes screening evidence for the presence of body fluids and other biological materials, followed by DNA testing, data analysis and report writing, and technical review. Some labs might have specific people who only perform one of these tasks (example: screening only), or analysts will take their cases all the way through the process themselves. My old crime lab did a hybrid of these two approaches.
Forensic scientist duties can be broken down into three main categories: administrative, laboratory, and instructional.
In the list of job tasks below, I use an asterisk (*) to indicate duties specific to forensic biologists/DNA.
Ordering and documentation of supplies
Crime labs go through TONS of consumable supplies on a routine basis. In forensic biology, we ordered reagents, commercial kits, test tubes, pipette tips, serology tests, gloves, etc., all the time. I ordered supplies for my section for a couple years until we hired a technician to help with this task.
Every time a state/government agency spends taxpayer money, they have to track and document everything. Before I even ordered the supplies, I had to put in purchase order requests and get approval up the chain of command for the orders. It took time to fill out all those forms.
Once the items arrived at the lab, I had to log them in and file the paperwork so the accounting people could do their thing.
Ahh, meetings. Everyone’s favorite job task!
Forensic scientists have to attend all sorts of meetings. The most frequent meeting is section meetings. How often meetings are held is up to the supervisor, but they can be every week, every two weeks, or every month. Our section meetings tended to last around an hour, but I remember several “marathon” meetings that lasted half a day or more.
Lab meetings include everyone in the entire lab. Ours were held every two months and included updates, important information, and trainings. They usually lasted around an hour.
No one is a stranger to answering emails at their jobs, including forensic scientists.
Everyone is familiar with human resources and all the exciting trainings they make employees do. [more forms, anyone?]
Crime labs follow all the “regular” work and safety practices that other businesses do.
We also had specialized trainings related to science and lab work. Off the top of my head, I remember OSHA trainings, annual safety trainings, fire extinguisher use training (this one was fun), chemical safety training, chemical disposal training, and bloodborne pathogen training.
Preparing for audits
Most crime labs are accredited. This means that they meet quality assurance/quality control criteria that ensure they are producing quality work. An outside agency comes in and makes sure the lab is following all the guidelines and procedures.
Maintaining accreditation means that crime labs must undergo periodic audits. In DNA, we had to be externally audited every other year, with internal audits on the off years. Other crime lab sections and the crime lab as a whole also have scheduled audits.
Preparing for audits means checking that all logs and documentation are up to date and in place and pulling casefiles and other SOPs for the auditors to look at.
Participating in audits
As a forensic scientist, I participated in audits both as an auditor and auditee.
Auditors use the list of accreditation criteria and check the official lab manuals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) to make sure the lab is following them. They also look through casefiles and interview employees in the lab. Employees in the lab can still perform other duties while the auditors are present, but they must be available to meet with the auditing team.
For internal audits, I was assigned to audit other sections. I remember auditing the controlled substances section one year and the physical science sections (latent prints and firearms/toolmarks) the year after that. I reviewed their chemical and quality control logs and went around their lab areas and asked questions about their SOPs.
After forensic scientists complete their lab work, gather data, and make their conclusions, they have to write reports on their findings. This can take anywhere from a half an hour (negative case with few items) to a whole day (big, complicated homicide case with 50 items and multiple victims/suspects).
In forensic DNA, every case must be technically reviewed by another qualified analyst. During a tech review, I would follow a checklist and make sure I agreed with the conclusions. The time I spent tech reviewing depended on the same factors mentioned above.
Training new analysts
Training for forensic scientists is a lengthy, involved process. For forensic DNA analysts, the training is required to be a minimum of 6 months, but usually takes a year or more.
Trainees have to do a lot of background reading and take tests. Trainees also observe casework performed by trained analysts and eventually perform casework under supervision.
Training for forensic scientists usually culminates in some type of mock trial scenario where a trainee takes a mock case through the entire lab process and testifies in a “courtroom” with different people playing the roles of judge, defense attorney, and prosecuting attorney. (I personally enjoyed being the judge. I like overruling and sustaining objections. Ha!) Trained analysts must prepare all the materials and participate in these events.
Annual review of SOPs
One of my least favorite tasks was annually reviewing SOPs. (It’s quite tedious.) Forensic biology sections tend to have a lot of SOPs to go through. I remember one especially long meeting where we holed up in the conference room for the entire day and went over these.
Preparing discovery materials
In legal proceedings, discovery is where the defense asks for all materials relating to a case. In our lab, the forensic scientists were required to prepare these documents. DNA reports could get quite long, so this process could take a while. We had to make copies of everything in the casefile and bind it.
My favorite job duty was working in the lab (versus sitting at my desk). I’ve been out of the field for about 5 years now, but this is one of the things I still miss. Contrary to what TV shows say, I’d say only about 60% of our time was actually spent working cases. Forensic scientists spend the rest of their time performing all the other tasks described in this post.
In forensic DNA, casework involves screening the evidence for the presence of body fluids, taking samples on for DNA testing, and data analysis.
Preparing reagents/Performing QC checks
Some reagents that forensic scientist use in lab work are made right in the lab. The chemicals are purchased from scientific companies and then prepared in house. Some were quick and easy to prepare; others took several hours.
Every purchased or prepared reagent has to be quality checked and the results logged. Quality checking means taking the reagent/kit and running it on samples with a known result. In forensic DNA, we had a lot of reagents and chemicals to check, plus we purchased commercially available kits to run our samples that also needed to be QC’d. Some labs have technicians that help with these types of tasks. You can read more about who else works in a crime lab in this post.
In forensic biology, we had to do a copious amount of cleaning and decontaminating. We had to filter and sterilize our reagents and consumables before use. We also had to decontaminate each of our instruments and tools and work areas between each item (nondisposable items such as countertops, tweezers, and dissection probes).
On a weekly basis, we had to decontaminate the entire lab. We used a bleach solution to clean all lab surfaces, including countertops; door, cabinet, and fridge handles; phones; equipment such as fume hoods, centrifuges, and alternate light sources; and instruments.
Sometimes instruments break or the data look wonky, so forensic scientists must troubleshoot to figure out the problem. I remember spending hours on the phone with tech support and running sample after sample trying to figure out why our genetic analyzer wasn’t working. It took three weeks!
Every instrument in the lab is hooked up to a computer with specialized software. Sometimes computers break and need fixing.
Training on new instruments/software
Every once in a while, the lab gets a new piece of equipment or software. These are usually highly specialized items where the end users (forensic scientists) need specific training. The company we purchased the product from would send out people to train us. These trainings can take days, even up to a week.
Instrument maintenance/Data backup
All the instruments in the lab have to be maintained, and the data on the computers need to be backed up. There are usually specific schedules in place. One of my jobs was to back up all the data on our robot every month.
In forensic DNA, new casework procedures and instruments must undergo something called a validation study before they can be used on actual casework. These studies are very in depth and time consuming.
When my old lab purchased new DNA extraction robots (which help get the DNA out of the cells), we had to run lots of samples, analyze all that data, and write up a big report on our conclusions.
Once the validation study on a new procedure was complete, every analyst has to be trained on it and then perform the new procedure on mock samples (with known results) to show he or she is able to do it correctly. You had to get the expected results to pass.
Forensic scientists take part in annual proficiency testing. Proficient testing involves an outside company sending mock case samples with known results to the lab. Each proficiency test is treated like a real case. It’s logged into the evidence tracking program, and the chain of custody is maintained.
Once the forensic scientist is finished with the test, the results are mailed back to the company, which lets you know the results.
Some crime labs offer crime scene services to law enforcement agencies.
One of the duties of a forensic scientist is testifying, which happens in a courtroom in front of a judge and jury or in a deposition with just the defense and prosecuting attorneys.
How often a forensic scientist has to testify depends on the section and geographical location. Some of my DNA colleagues at other crime labs testified a lot more than we did.
In my old lab, our controlled substances and toxicologists testified the most often. They worked the highest number of cases out of everyone at the lab.
Most of the cases I worked didn’t end up in court. Reasons for cases not going to court include dropped charges, uncooperative victims, plea deals, etc.
Meeting with attorneys
Prior to going to court, forensic scientists often meet with the prosecuting attorney to go over the details of the case. There are a lot of technical terms/jargon in forensic science, and one of the duties of forensic scientists is to educate people on what the results mean.
Some crime labs offer tours to the public. There are usually guidelines on who is eligible for a tour. Tours involve taking the group around to the different lab sections and showing them all the different areas and instruments.
Specialized presentations and trainings
As a forensic DNA analyst, I often had to give trainings and presentations to nurses, attorneys, and members of law enforcement on how to collect and submit evidence to the lab. The presentations themselves were usually about an hour, but travel was often necessary. (Sometimes the presentations were several hours away.)
Forensic scientists are required to attend continuing education trainings as part of lab accreditation. One opportunity involves attending forensic conferences, which offer workshops and specialized trainings on new technology and interesting cases.
Whew! I didn’t realize how many duties I had when I worked at the crime lab until I wrote them all down!
To recap, we learned that portrayal of forensic scientists on TV is inaccurate, and forensic scientists have a lot more duties than just casework, which I broke down into three main categories.
Were you surprised by some of the job tasks I described? What surprised you? Let me know in the comments below!