A Day in the Life of a Forensic Scientist
Serial crime sprees, whether fictional or real, send shivers down almost everyone’s spine. But in some cases, a passion for mysteries, true crime stories, and even popular shows like CSI can be a springboard for a real-life career in forensics. At least, that’s what happened to George Schiro, a Forensic Scientist for Scales Biological Laboratory, who has been interested in police work and forensic science since childhood and has worked on investigations for a number of serial murder cases.
Schiro started his career at a Sheriff’s Office Criminalistics Laboratory, where he made use of his microbiology background to conduct marijuana analysis, gunshot residue detection, hair examination, and more. Today, he is a DNA Technical Leader/Forensic Scientist, specializing in testing specimens related to human identity, paternity, and crime scenes. In addition to performing laboratory analysis of evidence such as latent fingerprints, footprints, and bloodstain patterns, Schiro provides consultation to attorneys and testifies on his findings in court. Some of his stranger-than-fiction cases, including his role in the investigation of The West Memphis Three, have been documented in books like Kirstin Blaise Lobato’s Unreasonable Conviction by Hans Sherrer, The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist by Mary Manhein, and Rope Burns by Robert Scott.
Schiro earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology from Louisiana State University (LSU). He went on to earn a Master of Science in Industrial Chemistry-Forensic Science from the University of Central Florida (UCF), and he also holds certification from the American Board of Criminalistics, with a specialty in Molecular Biology.
Keep reading to learn about a typical day in the life of a forensic scientist (hint: there isn’t one) and why Schiro feels a bachelor’s degree in forensic science might actually not be the first step for students interested in this field.
If you're already ready to grab the career of forensic science by the throat, find online forensic science degrees!
eLearners: Tell us more about your educational background. How did your experience lead you to a career as a forensic scientist and investigator?
I didn't realize I wanted to be a forensic scientist until I was at LSU. I was majoring in microbiology with a pre-med option when I decided that I didn't want to go to medical school. My best friend suggested that I look into a crime lab career. That's when it hit me like a bolt of lightning. That's exactly the career I wanted. Ever since I was a young boy growing up in New Orleans, I was interested in police work, mysteries, and science. This type of career seemed to be a perfect mix of my interests. During this time I was also taking some criminal justice classes when Ronnie Jewell, a supervisor from the LSPCL, spoke to our class. His talk gave me the inspiration to follow the forensic science career path (eventually Ronnie and I worked together at the LSPCL). In addition to my science classes, I took more criminal justice classes. Back in the 1980s, there were very few undergraduate forensic science programs and career counselors were unclear on what classes a person wishing to be a forensic scientist should take. This was before the explosion of interest in forensic science that took place after the O.J. Simpson trial. Most forensic scientists had some type of science degree, so, curriculum wise, I was on the right track. I had a friend who had some connections with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff and there happened to be an opening at the crime lab when I left LSU. Thanks to connections and timing, I was able to get my foot in the door and start my career. Later in my career, I obtained my MS through a distant learning program from UCF so that I would qualify to be a DNA Technical Leader. This distant learning program was specifically tailored to forensic DNA analysts. The curriculum required nine hours of classes at a local university (in my case LSU), fifteen hours of on-line courses, and a thesis. The subject of my thesis was determining if human DNA profiles could be obtained from fly larvae that had fed on human tissue. After earning my Master’s degree, I was eligible to become a DNA Technical Leader after three years of forensic DNA analysis experience.
eLearners: Can you describe your job in forensics? What are your primary responsibilities and duties?
Primarily I conduct DNA analyses. I also develop latent prints, conduct footwear examinations, analyze bloodstain patterns, and reconstruct crime scenes. I will also testify to the results of those analyses in court. I also provide consultation on those and other forensic science topics. As DNA technical leader, I am responsible for the lab’s DNA operations and its quality assurance. I have administrative duties as well, such as payroll, invoicing, drafting reports, paperwork, and carrying out other quality assurance activities. My prior governmental jobs also included crime scene investigation and consultation.
eLearners: What are the differences between forensic investigation and forensic science?
Forensic investigation is a rather broad term and I’m not sure there is a standard definition. You can probably ask ten different people and get ten different definitions. This can cover any number of disciplines including, but not limited to, death investigation, crime scene investigation, sexual assault nurse examination, forensic accounting, and any other type of investigation that might end up in court. The investigation part is usually the gathering of information portion of the case. Forensic science is the application of the scientific method to evidence and data gathered during the forensic investigation. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (aafs.org) has the following divisions: Criminalistics, Pathology/Biology, Anthropology, Toxicology, Odontology, Jurisprudence, General, Digital & Multimedia Sciences, Engineering Sciences, Psychiatry & Behavioral Science, and Questioned Documents. Both forensic identification and forensic science can be separate depending on the type of information gathered; however, there is overlap between the two, and, in many cases, for the information to have any meaning both the investigative information and the scientific analysis must be assessed together. For example, in order to know what bloodstains may mean in terms of crime scene reconstruction, the bloodstains must be properly documented and collected during the investigation. The scientific part would be the patterns of the stains, measurements of the stains, the DNA profiles obtained from the stains, and the nature of the injuries received by the bleeding individual. All of these parts and their integration involve the scientific method to formulate a working hypothesis of the events that occurred at the crime scene. That hypothesis may be supported, refuted, or changed by additional information or evidence that comes to light.
eLearners: Take us through a typical day on the job. How do your responsibilities differ at a crime scene versus in a laboratory?
That's hard to describe because no day is typical. I usually get to work at 8:00 am or earlier. I might start right into a case, continue an analysis, write some reports, or do other activities with pressing deadlines. I may be in lab meetings or meetings with investigators or attorneys. On court days, I may have to drive or fly to court to testify and/or consult. When I was working for governmental labs, I could be called to work a crime scene. On other days, I could be giving lab tours, lectures to various groups, or training police personnel on evidence collection and preservation. I usually leave the office at 5:00pm. In the lab, my responsibilities are centered around the analysis of evidence. At the crime scene, I will gather information about the scene; conduct a walk-through; document the scene with notes, photography, videography, and, maybe, sketching; collect the evidence; and preserve the evidence until it can be analyzed. The difference between the crime scene and the lab is primarily collection and documentation of evidence versus the analysis of the evidence. This analysis can include reconstructing the crime scene using the documentation from the scene and the test results obtained in the lab.
eLearners: Can you tell us about some of your more interesting cases? How much did you rely on actual crime scene investigation versus forensic science to solve the case?
I’ve had many interesting cases. The general public never hears about most of these cases, because the media doesn’t consider them newsworthy, but for me there are certain interesting and challenging aspects of the cases that make them interesting.
One of my more interesting cases was the case of Derrick Todd Lee, a serial killer that operated in south Louisiana. I worked one crime scene never officially attributed to Lee, but one in which he was most likely the perpetrator. I also assisted in the analysis of some of the evidence from cases to which he was linked. Several members of the ACL and I tried some new analytical approaches to the DNA evidence and footwear evidence in an effort to solve the case. We were able to provide some additional insights into the case; however, we did not solve the case. David McDavid and Ray Day of the Zachary Police Department in Zachary, Louisiana and the late Dannie Mixon of the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office had a hunch that Derrick Todd Lee was committing the murders. They collected a DNA swab from him and Natasha Poe, then of the LSPCL, was the one who matched Lee’s DNA to the DNA from the murders. Of course, there were many other people involved in processing the different crime scenes and linking the murders through DNA. The successful resolution to a case involves cooperation and communication among all parties, including detectives, investigators, medical personnel, and forensic scientists.
Another interesting case was the case of Daniel Blank, a serial killer murdering elderly couples in southeast Louisiana. I investigated and collected evidence from one of his crime scenes. Like many cases, the case was solved through cooperation and communication among all the detectives, investigators, and forensic scientists involved in the case.
Another interesting case was one in which an investigator named Rudy Guillory and I identified a serial rapist through the DNA of one of his relatives. This was a series of six rapes that occurred in the same town between 1986 and 2001. As in my other cases, credit has to go to the other investigators and forensic scientists that also worked on the case. In addition to the work done by the investigators and forensic scientists, a presentation I had heard several years earlier at an AAFS meeting and a fortuitous question from Rudy were key to solving this case.
One of the more high profile cases I have worked on was the case of the West Memphis Three, in which I was asked to investigate certain aspects of the case. I was also a consultant to Ray Krone’s attorneys in his civil case against the City of Phoenix. Ray Krone was the 100th person to be exonerated from death row since the reinstatement of the death penalty in the United States. Since 2001, I have been involved in the case of Kirstin Blaise Lobato, a woman twice convicted of a murder she may not have committed. There is no physical evidence linking her to the killing and there is physical evidence from the scene that excludes her as the source. This is another extremely interesting case.
eLearners: Films, TV shows and the news often glamorize jobs in forensic science. Do you feel this has a negative impact on students who may be attracted to these careers under false pretenses?
I don’t think the impact has been all negative. The current popularity of forensic science has been a double edged sword. On one hand it has exposed forensic science, although a sometimes stylized, fictionalized version of forensic science, to the general public. The general public has embraced this version of forensic science much to the chagrin of most forensic scientists, defense attorneys, and prosecutors. I like some of the forensic science based shows, but it’s not because of the science presented. It’s mostly because they are entertaining and the casts have great chemistry. This fictionalized version of forensic science has been around since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes. Because of this added attention, more students have taken an interest in forensic science as a career. More universities are now offering curriculums in forensic science (some programs are better than others). Hopefully, by the time they graduate, the students will know the realities of forensic science. I think that the current media depiction of forensic science should be used for inspiration and as a springboard for the student to research actual forensic science. The media version of forensic science can provide the students with areas in which they may be interested. From here, the student should talk to forensic scientists, read some forensic science texts and papers, observe forensic science testimony, and attend forensic science meetings to find out about real forensic science and the areas in which they may be interested. Perhaps the most negative impact of the popularity of forensic science is that there are many forensic science graduates for a relatively small number of forensic science positions.
eLearners: Which types of students do you feel are ideal for jobs in forensic science? Which skills and attributes contribute most to a successful career in the field?
Like any other job, ideal candidates for forensic science are students who work hard, are serious about their chosen field, and follow their passion for the field. Of course, forensic science employers are going to look for candidates who have excellent grades in their chosen science field, someone who has shown some leadership skills, someone who works well with others, someone with a positive general employment history, and someone with an engaging personality. Because of the sensitive nature of the evidence and the type of evidence that forensic scientists have to handle, there are some other ideals specific to the forensic science field. Some specifics to the forensic science field include no prior criminal convictions and no prior drug use, although some departments may be flexible on this issue depending on how long ago and to what extent was the drug usage. This line of work also requires people who are honest about themselves and their mistakes and who are not afraid to bring potential wrongdoing by other employees to management. Everyone makes mistakes and in this line of work a person has to have the resolve to admit their mistakes as soon as they realize they made them and learn from them; however, if the same mistakes are repeated, then perhaps that person should not be in this field. This field is not for everyone. Details about cases must also be kept confidential. Deadlines in this field are also important, so being able to work in high pressure situations without caving in to the pressure is another positive attribute. The forensic scientist also has to remain objective and take steps to limit their conscious and unconscious bias when analyzing the evidence, reporting the results of the analysis, and, most importantly, when testifying to the results in court. The ideal candidate also has to be open to constructive criticism and have a thick skin when it comes to destructive unfounded criticism. Speaking in public, particularly in court, is the “forensic” part of this job, so the ideal candidate also has to be able to speak well in public, especially in the courtroom setting, and they have to be able to keep their cool under, sometimes intense, cross examination.
eLearners: What advice do you have for students pursuing forensic science degrees? What are the biggest challenges, and how can students prepare themselves?
My initial advice will seem counterintuitive. I suggest not earning an undergraduate degree in forensic science. I recommend getting an undergraduate degree in one of the natural sciences (Biology, microbiology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, etc.). Earn the degree that is most suited to the field of forensic science in which you are interested. Also, keep in mind that certain classes and degrees may be required by the specialty field in which you are interested. For example, to be a forensic DNA analyst, you need credit in genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology. You also need training in statistics. Currently, there are not any standards requiring certain classes for other forensic science disciplines; however, I anticipate that changing in the next few years. The best thing to do is keep abreast of any curriculum guidelines for the various disciplines within forensic science. You can keep up with this by following the information coming out of the National Commission on Forensic Science and its committees. By having a natural science degree you will be able to pursue work in a crime lab. It will also give you the flexibility to pursue a job in another science related field if you cannot initially get into a crime lab. You can still gain valuable experience in a lab setting while waiting to pursue an opening at a crime lab. If you plan to go to graduate school, I recommend earning a graduate degree in forensic science. Your natural science undergraduate degree will give you the flexibility you need to pursue that first job and to give you a degree on which you can fall back if your forensic science aspirations get derailed. The graduate forensic science degree may make you more marketable. Keep in mind that right now, there are a lot of aspiring forensic scientists applying for a relatively few forensic science positions. Whether you decide to pursue an undergraduate or a graduate forensic science degree, I recommend that you enroll in a program that is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (fepac-edu.org). If these classes are not part of your curriculum I also recommend taking speech classes, a photography class, criminal justice classes, a physical anthropology or anatomy class, a statistics class, and a technical writing class.
eLearners: Is there anything else you would like to share that you feel would be valuable to students who are considering forensic science degrees?
You read my thoughts on forensic science degrees. Here is what I suggest to students: Make connections and network in the forensic science field. Contact anyone that you may know in law enforcement who can put you in contact with a local crime lab. You could also contact a crime lab and see if they allow tours of their facilities. Get to know the people working in the lab and, if possible, meet the lab director. Once you know these people, you will be able to find out the real scoop on working in a crime lab and your chances of breaking into the field may be greater.
Join forensic science organizations. Talk to the people working in your local crime lab and find information on any state and regional organizations. The AAFS has a student section. Some regional and state organizations, such as the Southern Association of Forensic Scientists (SAFS) and the Louisiana Association of Forensic Scientists (LAFS) may also allow students to join. Try to attend these meetings. This will allow you to network with many individuals in the forensic science field and you will see by the presentations what real forensic science work is like.
See if student worker or unpaid intern positions are available at crime labs. This may be the most important thing you can do. This will give you an opportunity to see if you really like the work and the lab. You will also make more connections and gain valuable information. If you have worked at a crime lab, then your chances of getting hired by a crime lab may be greater, but you have to make the connections first. It also doesn't hurt to have and use any political connections that you or your family might have. Internships can be hard to come by, because most labs don’t have the time, inclination, or incentive to take on interns. If you have the opportunity to get one, then take it. As I stated before, there are many people trying to get into the relatively small number of forensic science positions available. You have to make yourself stand out among a competitive field. The aspiring forensic scientist must do this by having as many positive attributes as possible.
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