Monday, July 10, 2006

Since You Asked

I had a few requests to tell more about my past career as a forensic scientist. The truth is that it's not nearly as glamorous as it seems on TV (but then, what is?) Actually, my subsequent career as a mother of five was far more varied and interesting, and no one asks me about that. (I heard a story about a woman at a gathering of her husband's work colleagues. He told her "Honey, don't bring out the baby pictures. Everyone here either has one or they don't.")

On the TV shows there seems to be one person who does it all. In our department (it was a long time ago and may have changed) there were basically three sorts of scientists. Firstly, those who mainly analysed body fluids - blood and semen - they did blood grouping but DNA testing was very much in its infancy. Secondly, those who handled physical evidence such as paint flakes, glass fragments, and ballistics testing. There wasn't very much ballistics testing since this is New Zealand and we don't do guns all that much, except for duck shooting and the like. Well, not as much as in the US, anyway. One of the gunshot experts later took a job in Hong Kong as a bomb disposal expert. I'm not sure what his wife thought about that, expecially since his predecessor had apparently blown a hand off.

Thirdly, there was a large amount of work to be done analysing drugs. That's the work I did, which you don't see on the TV shows much. You can't prosecute someone for possession of, say, cocaine, unless you prove it is cocaine. Even if they firmly believe it is cocaine - they may have been ripped off, after all. Once I was called in urgently on Boxing Day, because someone thought they had found drugs in their Christmas pressie. It was a cute animal money box with a little plastic bag of white powder inside. It turned out to be bath salts. Later I saw identical animal money boxes for sale in the shops, still in their boxes which - surprise! - were labelled "contains bath salts".

Probably the most exciting part of the job was that we got to have huge bonfires of the cannabis samples that were no longer required. Or it would have been, except that we burnt them still wrapped in plastic, and who wants to sniff plastic fumes? Not me, anyway.

Back then, there weren't any specialised forensic science courses. I did a Master's degree in chemistry and I had received a study award from what was then the DSIR (government science department) at the end of my first year. That meant I was obliged to work for them when I finished, which wasn't a burden really - I was glad to have a guaranteed job. I worked first in toxicology - mostly doing postmortem drug analysis of liver, kidney and blood samples. We also took turns analyzing blood samples from drunk drivers for two weeks at a time. That's pretty much gone now, they use evidential breath testing instead.

From toxicology I switched to the forensic section but it was much the same thing, only without being "packaged" in body tissue :)

The silliest crime story I heard while I was there involved some young men who burgled a store. I can't remember the details but it involved a broken plate glass window and cut tendons. So they stole a government car (which was parked outside the store in question with the keys inside!) to drive to the hospital, where the injured offender was put in plaster. Of course he obligingly left his blood all over the car.

While he was on bail for that offence, he and some mates went and "did" a liquor warehouse. When the police found little crumbly bits of plaster on the floor, of course they knew exactly where to go. They found him with cartons of stolen liquor stored in his house.

Then there was the young offender who gave police the slip when they were chasing him on foot - he had learnt his running skills at a police-run youth programme :)


Neil said...

That was fascinating. You must laugh when you see some of the nonsense they show on TV dramas.

Catherine said...

I don't watch crime shows much - I wonder if it's because I know how it really works. Whereas medical shows endlessly fascinate me.

Susannah Conway said...

Wow - i'm hooked and want to know more!

Anonymous said...

Why don't I ever find drugs in my Christmas pressies?

I'm just kidding. I don't do drugs. Drugs are bad.

Deb R said...

It may not have been as interesting as being a mom, but it's interesting to read about. Glad you decided to talk a little about it!

paris parfait said...

Thanks for sharing these interesting stories. And the reason we didn't ask about your career as a mom is many of us know what that's like - few of us know about being a forensic scientist (other than the exaggerated versions we see on television). :)

Catherine said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone. Of course I know why people don't ask about my career as a mom. Besides, my children are old enough to be embarrassed if I told stories about them.
Really though, I culled all the best bits, and there's not much left to tell. Or maybe there is, it just seems ordinary to me, so I'm not sure what else people want to know.