Alumnus shares what it’s really like to be a forensic scientist
Forget what you’ve seen on CSI and Criminal Minds: Crime lab scientists are not typically out in the field, nor do they have high-tech wall-projected computer display systems, and they certainly don’t have cases that are wrapped up in sixty minutes.
“There are grains of truth in those shows, but in real life, nothing is done in an hour,” said Ted Williams ’84, forensic scientist supervisor overseeing the Drug Identification Section at the Pennsylvania State Police Crime Lab in Erie. “We have a three- to four-month backlog.”
It’s easy to see why. The drug lab processes evidence from thirteen Pennsylvania counties and 300 police departments. Williams and four other scientists in the drug section evaluate about 2,500 cases a year.
Though he has the physique (thanks to triathlons) and demeanor (calm, but commanding) of a police officer, Williams, who graduated from Penn State Behrend with a degree in Applied Science with a focus in Chemistry, is a civilian employee of the Pennsylvania State Police under the Bureau of Forensic Services.
Unlike his television counterparts, Williams doesn’t generally know much about the case involving the evidence he is evaluating. That’s how it should be.
“When you get down to the science, you need to be objective,” he said. “It’s our job to find out what the substance is and report our findings to the investigating officer.”
When he started at the lab in the late ’80s, Williams said he spent a lot of time in court explaining his process and findings. That has dwindled over the years as the court system has become more efficient and laboratory processes more standardized and accepted.
“We rarely go to court more than two or three times a year now,” he said. “That’s fine with me. We belong in the lab, analyzing evidence.”
Williams said they have two important tools they use—a gas chromatograph/ mass spectrometer (GC/MS) and an infrared spectrophotometer (IR).
“When I first started we only had the IR and it took twelve minutes to test a sample; today, it takes less than one minute,” he said. “The GC/MS has greatly simplified the analysis of drug mixtures, which is quite common today.”
Drugs have evolved over the years. Designer and synthetic drugs introduce new drug combinations that may not be on the books yet.
“We’ll sometimes make an identification of a drug that has not been designated as a controlled substance yet,” he said. “Once law enforcement becomes aware of the new drug and determines the potential danger of it, they begin the process of making it a controlled substance. The clandestine drug chemists then just alter the structure slightly to make a new ‘legal’ drug. It can be a real cat-and-mouse game.”
Williams is happy to be on Team Cat.
“I worked as an industrial chemist at an Erie company for three years before I got the job at the crime lab,” he said. “I’ve always admired police officers and I like being able to use my science degree to help them.”
He urges students interested in a career in forensic science to major in a science discipline. “
I always suggest to those who are interested in forensic science that they get a scientific degree, such as biology or chemistry or general science, which offers more flexibility,” Williams said.
“Working in forensic science is not as glamorous as you see on TV,” he said. “I’m in a lab eight hours a day, but there really isn’t anywhere else I’d rather work.”