A day in the life of a forensic scientist

4:15 am – alarm goes off. I don’t even think twice anymore about the choice of sleeping longer vs. getting up to swim this early in the morning. It is very apparent to me that when I swim in the morning, my whole day is so much more pleasant. I do spend a few seconds to reflect a little bit about how my life might be different in a few months, when I will probably live much closer to the gym and work.

Reflection: Having been a graduate student and a postdoc for so long (you can read about that transition here), my husband and I have not been able to accumulate any savings. So, when we made the move to a part of the country that happens to have a very high cost of living, we decided to take his parents up on the offer to live with them, just to give us time to figure out our living situation. It has worked out wonderfully, and very much enriched my life. And what my 1hr+ each way commute to and from work has sucked out of my life – they were able to make up with their love and support, and cooked meals ready for me when I got home. But I am ready to move closer to work – a place that I feel confident that I will have the opportunity to stay for the rest of my career.

5:30 am – Arrive at the gym and jump in the pool. Brrrr – but only for a second.

7:30 am – Arrive at work refreshed, showered and dressed professionally but comfortably for the day (closed toes, shoes, of course, on account that my desk is in the lab). Open some excel project files with graphs and data I get to play with. This data was collected from a new multiplex PCR kit on a new instrument that analyzes genetic information. We need to test all parameters of this kit and instrument before it can be used on real evidence that makes it’s way into the crime lab. My previous experience as a scientist made me very qualified to work on this project for the benefit of the lab. And it worked out for me, because I got hands on experience on the techniques and instruments I will be using on real crime scene evidence in the future.

It takes me a few minutes to contemplate how these will be most intuitive and most useful for the other analysts when they are contemplating PCR results from an evidence swab that was collected from a crime scene. I try to think about conversations I have heard around the lab on this topic. The difficult cases are the ones where the evidence contains a mixture of multiple people. The PCR results are much different from how I am used to looking at them in my graduate school and postdoc lab – no more bands on a slab gel – with only one or two bands per mouse. Now I am looking at peaks on an electropherogram – with about 20-40 peaks per person. It gets a lot more complicated when another person’s DNA is on the same trace.

So, these graphs – what labels should I add? How can I make this more easy to read? Is this the appropriate type of graph for this data? These are all questions that I feel very comfortable with because of my training. But this process would be enhanced by coffee.

10:15 am – coffee break. I take a stroll to a nearby cafe with another “newbie”. We spend a few minutes venting to each other about how different this environment is from academia – where she also spent a few years. Rather than knowledge, ideas and a willingness to be a team player, experience seems to be valued above all. We don’t even seem to exist to others in the lab with the same position as us, because to them, we have no idea what we are doing. Although it was quite a shock to me at first, it is rather nice to be under the radar for a while. I will just plug along, doing what I know that I can do well, and mind my own business.

10:45 am – back at it. I also take a few hours to do some reading that is part of my training to become a DNA analyst.

Reflection: This is also different from academia. In academia, it was entirely my responsibility to get completely trained and competent on the techniques I was planning on using. Massive literature searches, perhaps the writing of a review. And it was overwhelming to me that these seemed to change multiple times a year, just to be competitive for grant applications. In my current environment, this training takes about 9 months. I have plenty of time to read the textbook before our lectures, and the reading list is all laid out for me! Despite the fact that I know a lot of this material, it is still required that I go through training. One important reason for this is that I need to have this training program documented for the purpose of being an expert witness in court. It is not enough to just say that I have knowledge in this area. The thought of trying to describe my dissertation project to a jury to convince them that evidence from the case was handled appropriately just makes me cringe. I am glad I do not need to do that.

12:15 am – lunch with the other newbies. We were not invited to eat earlier with the others. Fine by me. Some buy lunch, most bring their own creations, which I like to investigate for inspirational purposes.

1:30 pm – Because I am in this period of training for the next few months, we have an in-depth lecture about PCR and the multiplex kits that are available to our lab for testing. The fellow co-worker that was assigned to train us on this lecture, also goes out of her way to give us examples of how she explains this process to the lay audience that is the jury, when she is called as an expert witness in court. I like this aspect of the training because it is so new to me.

3:30 pm – Email, reading, and socializing with co-workers.

4:00 pm – Time to go home! Because I am on an 8 hour work schedule, and I only took 30 minutes at lunch, I HAVE to go home – I am not allowed to work anymore, and it is not expected that I do my reading at home. If I work overtime, they are obligated to pay me for it. And they won’t authorize that until I am signed off to do casework, and am working on an important rush case, or working down the backlog.

5:15 pm – Get home, eat, talk our prospect for buy a house with the rest of the family (we might be living with the fam for a while longer), and watch a show with my husband.

8:45 pm – Sleep. Sweet dreams. Yes, this is early, but if I don’t do this, I am toast at the end of the week.

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2 Responses to A day in the life of a forensic scientist

  1. Torschlusspanik says:

    You are my heroine for going to the gym so early in the morning every day… And what a different life! No board game? 😉

    Like

  2. Pingback: A day in the life of a Research Scientist in Biotech | A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman

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