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What is Forensic Science and Forensic Chemistry?

Many people know forensic science only through the media, principally TV shows such as CSI. Others see something on the news, or have relatives in law enforcement.But what is this job all about and what is it really like to work in it? Like many scientific professions, forensic science is changing rapidly due to automation, advances in biochemistry and DNA typing. Some generalizations can be made:

  • "Forensic science" is a blanket term for many fields and disciplines, all related to the application of science to law enforcement and to any matter that is the subject of litigation.
  • Most forensic scientists are employed in local, state, and federal crime laboratories working in one of the following areas: forensic biology, forensic chemistry, trace evidence, firearms and tool marks, fingerprints, photography and imaging questioned documents and toxicology.
  • For these forensic scientists, the majority of their time is spent in the lab doing casework. Depending on specialty, they also spend time in court (mostly waiting and traveling), and some will spend time working crime scenes.
  • Another large portion of forensic specialists are involved in medical fields. This includes medical examiners (MEs) and forensic pathologists. People in this field have an M.D. and have completed specialized residencies in these areas. Forensic odontologists are dentists who also perform forensic work.
  • Some forensic scientists work as consultants related to their academic speciality. Forensic anthropologists and forensic entolomologists (insect specialists) are examples. Generally, people in these fields have a Ph.D. in an area and have additional study in the forensic applications of that field. Forensic work usually makes up just a part the their work.
  • Specialists in fields that are involved occasionally in forensic work would include computer scientists who do forensic work on computer equipment and software. There is a growing field of professionals who do nothing but forensic computing.
  • For those who work in traditional forensic labs, the term "criminalist" is often used. Criminalists specialize not so much in one scientific area but rather in the practice of "individualization." Often, their primary responsibility is not only to identify some article of physical evidence, but to link it to a specific source, be it a person, place, or thing. Criminalists use techniques such as DNA typing and physical matching to accomplish this.
  • Some forensic scientists become involved in crime scene work either in collection, documentation, analysis, reconstruction, or some combination of all of these. However, how crime scenes are handled differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and currently, there is no set or certain educational career path to becoming a crime scene specialist. Labor is often divided by evidence collection or crime scene technicians who "work" the scene and the laboratory personnel who analyze the evidence collected.
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