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.