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Forensic scientist: Job description

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Forensic scientists provide impartial scientific evidence for use in courts of law to support the prosecution or defence in criminal and civil investigations. They are primarily concerned with examining contact trace material associated with crimes. This follows the principle that 'every contact leaves a trace' that will offer potential evidence to link a suspect with the scene of the crime, the victim or the weapon.

In contrast with popular perception, this is a highly scientific role, which often involves detailed, painstaking work. Interest in forensic science has increased over the last few years, partly as a result of popular television crime dramas that do not always reflect the true nature of the work.

Typical work activities

Job activities very much depend on the area of forensics in which you work. The main areas are:

  • chemistry, which is connected to crimes against property, such as burglary and arson;
  • biology, which is connected to crimes against people, such as murder, assault and rape;
  • drugs and toxicology.

Within these areas, the work usually involves:

  • chemistry - the examination of paint, chemicals, etc., including fire investigation and accident reconstruction;
  • biology - DNA testing and the examination of minute contact traces, such as blood, hair, clothing fibres, etc.;
  • drugs and toxicology - testing for restricted drugs, examining tissue specimens for poison detection, and the analysis of blood and urine samples for alcohol, for example in drink driving offences.

However, there is a degree of cross-over and typical work activities are likely to include some or all of the following:

  • analysing samples, such as hair, body fluids, glass, paint and drugs, in the laboratory;
  • applying techniques such as gas and high performance liquid chromatography, scanning electron microscopy, mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy and genetic fingerprinting;
  • sifting and sorting evidence, often held in miniscule quantities;
  • attending and examining scenes of crimes;
  • recording findings and collecting trace evidence from scenes of crimes or accidents;
  • inputting relevant data into computer programs;
  • reviewing and supervising the work of assistants;
  • presenting results of work in written form or by giving oral evidence;
  • justifying findings under cross-examination in courts of law;
  • researching and developing new techniques;
  • liaising with team members;
  • coordinating with outside agencies and offering expert advice;
  • analysing and interpreting results and computer data;
  • liaising with police to establish forensic strategies;
  • writing detailed reports for court;
  • instructing on procedures for cases.
Written by AGCAS editors
October 2012

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