Forensic chemists use science to extract information from substances found at crime scenes.

Anything left at a crime scene is fair game for a forensic chemist. Anything from tainted food to disguised drugs to mysterious flammable substances could contain essential information for a criminal investigation or civil suit. Unlike its close cousin and subfield forensic toxicology, which focuses more on how poisons affect people, forensic chemistry deals largely with the non-biological and what is known as trace evidence. Trace evidence refers to fragments of material that are moved as a result of an irregular action - a fight, a fire, a fender bender. Often these leavings are microscopic, which is why the people who examine them must be attentive to the smallest details. Other times they are not what they appear to be and require chemical testing to reveal their origins. Depending on the sector that employs them, a forensic chemist may be responsible for identifying narcotics at a crime scene, testing paint chips for lead, or analyzing a substance that may have caused a fire.

In order to obtain the information a case requires, a forensic chemist has to be able to ask the right questions and then apply their skills to the quest of answering them. This requires sharp analytical thinking and scientific expertise, as the evidence they produce can determine the outcome of a suit.

Forensic chemist work may include...

  • Identifying inorganic substances at crime scenes
  • Collecting samples of trace evidence
  • Using specialized equipment and techniques to analyze substances
  • Documenting findings in a report for law enforcement
  • Providing unbiased scientific testimony in court

Forensic chemists are employed in many capacities by law enforcement, private labs, or government agencies such as the FBI or DEA. These are the whitecoats who use specialized scientific knowledge to identify hidden signs of criminal activity.

All jobs in forensic chemistry will require a Bachelor's degree in a related discipline with a lab component, preferably chemistry or forensic sciences. Since this is a laboratory career, any experience you can gain in the techniques forensic chemists use (such as gas chromatography or infrared spectroscopy) is valuable. Coursework in mathematics, particularly calculus, is helpful, as is an understanding of physics. If you aspire to a career as a lab director or research fellow, consider getting a graduate degree; there are a few Master's programs in forensic chemistry. If you'd like to devote your life to the mastery of existing forensic chemistry practices, consider getting a PhD.

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