Forensic Science and Pop Culture

You know the sound. It’s that familiar ‘dun-dun’ sound that comes after a dramatic discovery, signifying a scene change in NBC’s famous crime drama, ‘Law & Order.’ Television shows like it, such as ‘CSI,’ ‘Bones,’ and ‘Dexter’ have all romanticized the work that forensic chemists do — and have helped elevate the field of forensic chemistry among younger chemists. This kind of promotion is great for the field of forensic science, but it begs the question: is the science being used on TV accurate?

The above is not forensic technology... yet. (Photo Credit: CBS CSI Cyber)

The above is not forensic technology… yet. (Photo Credit: CBS CSI Cyber)

So, let’s get down to it. Is the science real? Well, we did a lot of research, and it seems that the majority of the science used on crime drama television shows is an “extension” of the truth. Meaning, that at least some portion of the science is accurate … but for dramatic effect, the producers and writers stretch the truth. They do so in various ways.

One of the most common ways for a show to bend the truth is to complete, seemingly in just a few hours, a test that might take days or weeks to complete in real life. Another way is for a show to omit a step or two in a procedure, typically in the name of expediency. For example, one of the articles we read identified an inconsistency between real science and the way it’s depicted on TV. In one episode of NCIS, the crime scene investigator is sent to examine a skating rink where someone was killed. The investigators note that the rink has ultraviolet lights which, once they’re turned on, reveal a blood stain. What the show missed is that blood is not bioluminescent on its own, and that a chemical must first be applied to the surface to reveal blood stains under UV light. While these might prove that the science being used on the shows is absurd, it brings us a little hope that there are fact checkers out there making sure that at least some of the principles being used have some basis in reality.

In our search, we found an excellent documentary from our friends at National Geographic entitled ‘The Real CSI: Crime Autopsy.’ This documentary takes a close look at what being a crime scene investigator (CSI) means. We suggest you take a look!

Forensic science isn’t found only on TV. If you’ve ever downloaded the podcast ‘Serial,’ you’re familiar with the story of Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee. Hae Min Lee was a teenager living in the Baltimore area who was murdered, and found a month after her disappearance. Throughout the series, the podcast’s author identifies the lack of forensic evidence in the case. As a result of her investigation, Syed, who was found guilty of murdering Hae and sentenced to life in prison, was granted a second trial. To listen and learn more, you can visit the Serial podcast’s website.

Whether the science being portrayed in popular culture is factual or not, it’s great to see the field of forensic science being so widely promoted on national TV and on radio. We have forensic scientists to thank for solving many crime scene mysteries.

If you’re looking for a chapter activity that could tie in with this year’s NCW theme, you might try what we’re calling the “Serial Cereal Party.”  Once a week, your chapter members meet for breakfast (or lunch or dinner, for that matter) and discuss what they

learned last week listening to the Serial podcast. It’s a fun way to bond as a group and to talk about the science behind one of the most captivating stories we’ve ever heard.

Using Chemistry to Solve Mysteries: A Look into the Field of Forensic Chemistry

We hear all the time about the work forensic chemists do. For example, it might be reported on the news that a medical examiner’s office ruled that a victim’s cause of death was foul play, or that investigators with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have identified new synthetic drugs. Whether it occurs to a viewer or not, in each of these cases, a team of forensic scientists collected samples, ran a series of tests, and analyzed the results to make their determinations.

Before I go further, let me take a step back and answer the question: what exactly is forensic chemistry? Simply put, forensic chemistry is a sub-discipline of the forensic sciences that uses methods of chemical analysis to examine physical evidence to help solve crimes or mysteries. A forensic chemist will use their skillsets to identify substances found within, on, or near bodies during investigations of crime scenes.

Elle Woods: definitely NOT a forensic chemist, but, somehow, still correct!

Elle Woods: definitely NOT a forensic chemist, but, somehow, still correct!

As you can imagine, this field of science has an incredibly important place in our society. These chemists play a vital role in our criminal justice system, but their potential is not limited to crime scenes or crime labs, despite what the creators of ‘CSI’ might want you to believe. Our world is full of mysteries, and forensic chemists can help us solve many of them. For example, a forensic chemist might analyze fossil remains to help determine where a species originated, or they might study the chemical composition of paint to determine the authenticity of a piece of art.

If you’re asking yourself how you can become a “modern day Sherlock,” we’re here to help! Whether you’re working in a crime lab analyzing gunshot residue or you are taking samples of paint from the Mona Lisa, you’re applying many of the same concepts you learned in your undergraduate studies. Forensic scientists working in the field typically have a background in chemistry and biology, with an emphasis on instrumental analysis. Many receive on-the-job training to help them specialize within their offices. Most forensic chemists spend their careers working in federal, state, or county labs. Some have a close association with the medical examiner’s office. Some move on to become lab directors or lead investigators.

Finding a job as a forensic chemist might be more difficult these days, because the portrayal of the forensic sciences in the media has increased interest in the field. With that being said, the demand for forensic chemists is on the rise. If this is a career that interests you, I would recommend using ACS’ Get Experience database to find opportunities in forensic chemistry that might be a good fit for you.

ctc-logo-SMNTo learn more about forensic chemistry and what it means to be a forensic chemist, visit the ACS College-to-Career website. We’ve gathered additional career data, salary and hiring prospects, and posted profiles of professional forensic chemists.