Primary job responsibilities:
I test biological fluids (particularly blood and urine) for the presence of alcohol and/or drugs, and then write reports of my results that can be used in a court of law. The types of cases I work include DWI (driving while intoxicated), DUID (driving under the influence of drugs), violent crimes where alcohol or drugs might be a factor (i.e., homicide or sexual assault), and coroner cases involving a deceased individual. I am also occasionally required to attend court in order to report my results in front of a judge and/or jury.
Typical day on the job:
My days vary widely depending on what tasks I have to accomplish. Most of the experiments I perform take close to a full 8-hour day. After performing an experiment, the following one to three days could be spent analyzing the data, depending on the nature and magnitude of the experiment. After data analysis, I might spend half of a day writing reports for those cases. Every case that is worked is peer-reviewed; the flip side of this is that I spend probably 5-10% of my week peer-reviewing the work of my colleagues. Some days are completely filled with court-related work. This might entail studying the results in a case for which I have been issued a subpoena, as well as traveling to court in a location a few minutes to several hours away.
I split my time between my cubicle and the laboratory. I have my own cubicle space that is ample size and allows me to work in a relatively private area. The laboratory space is large and is shared with my co-workers. While I have my own bench space for organizing my evidence and performing experiments, I share equipment (centrifuges, evaporators, etc.), reagents, and instruments with my colleagues.
Forty hours is my typical work week. I might work more than 40 hours if I happen to have to provide testimony in court in a distant location that requires a long day of travel. I am sometimes given the opportunity to work a paid overtime project for the purpose of reducing the backlog, but this is never a guarantee and the amount of overtime I am allowed to work varies based on available funds. The work environment is not high stress, but there is always something to do. Between working cases, attending court, and improving and validating new methods, I keep pretty busy.
1-5 days, generally related to testifying in court cases.
Tools you can’t live without:
All of my confirmation experiments are performed on either a headspace gas chromatograph (HSGC) or a gas chromatograph/mass spectrometer (GCMS). These are the workhorses of our lab, and so understanding them and their software programs is critical. Also, being comfortable with Microsoft Office is important for the presentations we might give (PowerPoint) and the spreadsheets we keep for various reasons (Excel). Our set of mechanical pipettes play a crucial role in the success of toxicology, so familiarity with them is key.
What you like most about your job:
My job allows me to use the scientific degrees I have in a practical way. Every day I realize why I learned certain things in school — such as performing simple extractions — and I see those concepts applied to a “real world” setting. I collaborate with my co-workers, as well as solve problems and complete projects on my own. It’s interesting to see how many different processes can be used in presumptive testing [to determine whether a sample is either definitely not a certain substance, such as blood, or could be] and confirmative testing [done to confirm the results of presumptive testing]. I feel that my job matters in the sense that my reports and testimony can bring an unbiased truth to a legal situation that needs to be resolved.
Best productivity trick:
See the end result and the small steps necessary to reach that point, as opposed to viewing the entire process as one large step.
Best career advice you’ve received:
Take advantage of any internship opportunities you have. Prior to interning with the crime lab, I had no idea of the appeal of forensic toxicology. Internships also help in building a professional network, which is also critical to success.
Skills or talents that make you a good fit for your job:
I enjoy solving problems and I love chemistry. Being able to combine these two traits makes this job enjoyable, as each new case is essentially its own problem that needs to be solved. I also enjoy working with others, which is an important part of my job.
Is there anything else you would like to mention about your career:
Court testimony is a major part of a career in forensic sciences that most people do not think about. Being able to communicate effectively and essentially teach what you do to a judge, jurors, and legal counsel who have little to no training in your field is very important. Scientists who enjoy explaining their work might find forensics more appealing than they originally thought.
Even though there are a lot of depictions of forensic science in the media, I had to learn for myself about the unique role I play. Some people might expect that someone in my position would feel pressure to report results that would please either the prosecution or the defense; but my job is to report the truth that my findings have revealed and ‘inform the uninformed.’ I’ve testified in court a few times, and although it can be a little stressful, I’ve found that being prepared is the best way to perform my role.
Essential habit you wish you’d started earlier:
Avoid procrastination. As a student, I always put off assignments and studying until the last minute. Since I now work in an environment where procrastination hinders the functioning of my section, I realize the importance of finishing tasks in an efficient manner.