Forensic Program Trains Scientific Sleuths

By Claire L. Burgess

David Graves

David Graves

Lawyers, police officers, and doctors used to nab all the professional glory on prime-time television. That is, until 2000, when CSI: Crime Scene Investigation debuted with an addictive blend of thrilling plotlines and scientific wizardry and quickly became a runaway hit. Now you can find forensic scientists all over the cable box, including dramas such as Bones and Dexter and reality shows such as Forensic Files.

Science geeks have become crime-fighting superheroes—only in lab coats and protective eyewear instead of spandex and capes. And by generating massive exposure for a previously little-known profession, these shows are actually performing a public service. Forensic science is one of the fastest-growing jobs in the country; the need for trained investigators is projected to grow 31 percent by 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A few seasons’ worth of CSI won’t prepare anyone for the reality of criminal forensics, however. For that, interested parties can turn to the innovative new bachelor’s degree in forensic chemistry offered by the UAB Department of Chemistry, one of only a handful of programs in the country offering similarly in-depth training.

CSI: Real Life

Not surprisingly, the Hollywood version of forensic science isn’t always authentic, says chemistry department chair David Graves, Ph.D., who pioneered the forensic chemistry program at UAB. “They really stretch it,” he says. “As a forensic chemist, you’re not carrying a gun, you’re not interviewing witnesses or any of that. You’re much more of a scientist than a law officer.”

But the scientist, Graves notes, has one of the most important jobs on the law enforcement team. “I don’t want to down-play the people who go to crime scenes and make arrests, but a lot of people can do that. Very few people can inject a sample into the Mass Spec and determine what the data says and plug the two together.”

Some forensic scientists do visit crime scenes to collect evidence, but most of their work is done at the lab bench. “The real nuts and bolts come down to what people do in the lab,” says Graves. And what they do boils down to two things: analytical chemistry and biochemistry. Analytical chemistry is the study of the chemical composition of materials, such as the remains of accelerant found at an arson, or the grains of a strange substance turned up in the tread of a shoe. Biochemistry deals with the substances and chemical processes of living organisms, which is of vital importance because biological materials such as blood, hair, and DNA often break cases.

Another vital aspect of a forensic chemist’s job is knowing how to use an intimidating array of high-tech equipment. According to Graves, one of the things CSI gets right is how often its characters say the words “Mass Spec.” The Mass Spectrometer is one of the most important and commonly used instruments in the lab, he says. “What it does, simply, is determine the mass of a particular chemical compound.” This involves ionization and speeding molecules and magnetic fields, but the end result is those spiky graphs the CSIs are always looking at on TV. Each spike represents an ion with a different mass, and the height of the spikes indicates how much of each ion is found in the sample. These fragmentation patterns identify compounds in the same way fingerprints identify people.

“I’m glad these shows are really popular,” says Graves. “I watch them occasionally. I always get amused when they can take a blood sample and within 30 minutes know where it came from—I’d like to see that sequencer, because it takes several weeks in reality.” The instrumentation shown onscreen is often the genuine article, though. “I’ve seen a VERTEX70, which is a Fourier transform infrared spectrometer, on CSI: Miami,” says Graves. “We have one upstairs.”


UAB’s forensic chemistry program does not include courses in marksmanship or interrogation techniques. Instead, students take courses in analytical chemistry, biochemistry, and justice science, and fulfill unique requirements such as public speaking, photography, and a 10-week internship. Another course Graves is squeezing into the already expansive curriculum is photography. It is very useful for a forensic scientist to know the workings of a camera, how digital photographs can be manipulated, and how to extract information from film and photos, he says.

needle“This is actually the most robust chemistry program we have,” says Graves.  “UAB’s degrees have 120-credit-hour limits. We had to get an exception to get everything in that we needed, and still there are a few additional classes that we encourage students to take. The students are told up front that it’s the toughest degree program we have, and they still jump on it.”

To build the new program, Graves, who was the director of the University of Mississippi’s forensic chemistry program before he came to UAB in 2003, drew from his 20 years of experience in teaching forensic science and also talked closely with directors in the Alabama state crime lab. “We have a very good relationship with the state crime lab,” he says. “Their input was extremely important to us in developing the appropriate curriculum.”

Part of the reason the program is 10 hours over the usual limit is because it has to meet the standards of two different accreditation bodies: the American Chemistry Society and the American Association of Forensic Science, both of which are essential badges of recognition for any student starting a career in the field. Courses outside the chemistry department are also required, including toxicology and physics.

From the Lab Bench to the Judge’s Bench

Forensic chemistry isn’t all behind-the-scenes work, however. Forensic scientists must be able to present their findings in court, so forensic chemistry majors at UAB have another unique course requirement: public speaking. “You’re learning how to collect data properly; you’re learning how to use the instrumentation properly; you’re learning how to document all of what you do properly,” Graves says. “And there’s an art to that—or a science. You can be a really, really good scientist and generate all this data, but if you can’t go and present it properly, then you’re just a nerd in a lab coat.” Forensic chemistry students at UAB learn how to control their body language, present their data confidently, and put their findings into terms easily understood by laypeople on the jury.

In order to give students some realistic practice, Graves and the other professors are designing special activities to simulate actual investigations, from the beginning stages in the lab to their conclusion in the courtroom. “We’re going to set up a whole series of labs that will be hands-on training,” he says. “For example, they’ll do trace analysis of scrapings of paint off a bumper. What kind of instrumentation would you use to identify the paint or the chemical compounds in the paint? Or it may be an arson investigation and they’re going to have to extract accelerant from a charred piece of wood and identify it.”

The second stage of the training will be a mock trial exercise involving students from a nearby law school. “We’ll have one person from the law school posing as a prosecutor and another as a defense lawyer, and students will be up there getting hit from both sides, having to defend their data,” says Graves. “Where they try to poke holes in it, the students will have to defend how they did it and why they did it this way and what protocols were followed and not get flustered.” Graves implemented a similar exercise at the University of Mississippi, with great success. “The students coming out were really much more confident and savvy,” he says.

Preparation Into Practice

Another innovative aspect of UAB’s program is the required 10-week internship in a local, state, or federal crime lab at the end of the junior year. “We’ve had two of our students go to the FBI laboratory in Quantico,” says Graves. “That is really outstanding. One actually went this past year and is now joining the FBI.”

UAB also offers a master’s degree in forensic science in the Department of Justice Sciences, which focuses on the criminalistics side of forensic science. That program is a logical next step for some forensic chemistry graduates, but there are many different career paths the degree can lead to, says Graves. “You could very easily be hired into a local, state, or federal laboratory,” he says. “Though if you want to be head of a department or program at a state lab, then you need to get a master’s or Ph.D.”

In Graves’s experience, only about half of graduating students go to crime labs, however. “About a third go on to medical school. The program provides a tremendous background for going into medical school or any of the health professions. And then, surprisingly to me, most of the other graduates have gone to law school. As it turns out, in our interactions with law professors, they love it when they get these students. And about half of those law students went on to the FBI.”

With its emphasis on the fundamentals of the field and its innovative mix of courses, UAB’s new forensic chemistry program is sure to be in high demand, says Graves. “There are a lot of forensic science programs throughout the country, but there are only a handful of forensic chemistry programs. What we want is for our program to be at the top of that group. We want laboratories clamoring to grab our students as soon as they graduate. There’s a real need out there in the local, state, and federal crime labs for well-trained people, and we’re filling that need.”

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