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Q&A with Criminalist, Ronald L. Singer, M.S.

CriminalJusticePrograms.com recently spoke with Ronald L. Singer, the technical and administrative director of the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's office, Chair of the Forensic Sciences Foundation, and former president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and the International Association of Forensic Sciences.

Below he shares his thoughts on crime labs, working as a criminalist and the future of forensic science.

Q: What kind of preparation does someone pursuing forensic science need?

A: The term forensic science covers a lot of ground. Depending on what area of forensic science the student is interested in pursuing, the education and experience requirements will be different.

I have a master's degree in biological science. For a crime lab the minimum requirement is a bachelor's in one of the life sciences, either chemistry or biology. Some laboratories will also consider someone who has a bachelor's degree in forensic science. My recommendation has always been that you should pursue an undergraduate degree in either chemistry or biology, then go to graduate school and get a master's in forensic science from an accredited program. That will give you the competitive advantage. All other things being the same, I'm going to hire the person with the master's degree.

Q: Interest in forensics is growing in large part due to television series like CSI, Forensic Files, etc. - how far apart is the reality from what people are seeing on TV?

A: There's a pretty wide gap there. What [some students] think of as a CSI (crime scene investigator) is what they see on the television program CSI. Of course, those people don't really exist. There's usually a division of labor between the people who work in the crime laboratory who are scientists and the people who are responding to crime scenes as crime scene investigators. In general, [these investigators] are police officers who may or may not have a science background.

Q: When you first start at a crime lab, what is an average day like?

A: Someone who comes into the laboratory with absolutely no experience is going to have to do some training within that laboratory itself. That training program can last anywhere from six months to a couple of years depending on what it is you're doing. At some point down the line... you'll be receiving cases and issuing reports on the work you've done, and you're subject to being called to court to testify. Depending on the laboratory you're in, you may be called to crime scenes to lend technical assistance as well.

My background is in firearm and toolmark examination. As a firearm and toolmark examiner, I was responsible for the examination of firearms and ammunition components that had been fired from various kinds of firearms, the comparison of bullets and cartridge cases, and the like.

Q: What do you need to succeed in this career?

A: You need to have a strong background in science and mathematics, but what a lot of people overlook is that in order to be effective as a forensic scientist, you also need to be a good communicator. You need to be able to write in a coherent manner, and you need to be able to speak and relate the things that you've done in a manner that people who are not educated in what you do can understand. You have to be able to relate to a [jury]. Keep up with the liberal arts; keep up with current events so that you can use examples that the jury is going to understand. I look at the makeup of the jury-if it's a lot of younger people, then I know I can't make references to 1930s and 1940s movies.

You also have to have a thick skin. The adversaries', whether it be the defense or the prosecution, job is to make you look less credible. The ways they do that is to either attack you personally or to try to make it appear like you really don't know what you're talking about. You have to be able to understand that they're only doing their job.

Q: What do you wish someone had told you about forensics?

A: I wasn't really prepared for a couple of things. One of them is the pressure of the job. Most laboratories are going to be chronically understaffed and overworked because they are by and large parts of police departments. You're down at the bottom of this funding ladder, and it's very difficult to get the financial and manpower support that you need to do a really good job. There are also some subtle pressures. Scientists are trained to be objective--you get into the field and there are these subtle pressures that come from the district attorney or the investigator. That kind of pressure can become unnerving. The other thing, which took some adjusting to, is that your whole career is based on what I refer to as the toilet's eye view of life-you don't see the really good people. What you see is the product of man's inhumanity to man, and it can be pretty brutal sometimes.

Q: How has technology impacted the field?

A: We're doing things now with DNA analysis that were simply not possible before. In addition, Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)-what it will do for you in an hour used to take days or even weeks. We've got databases now not only in fingerprints, but in DNA, in firearms and in shoeprints.

One area that has been most impacted is DNA. Now you can actually get a full DNA profile off of the cells that are left behind on the collar of a shirt. You are going to be able to do more and more with less and less. The other area is digital forensics. Everybody uses cell phones and computers these days. It's one of the areas that is now becoming very, very important.

Q: What do you see for the future of forensic science?

A: Areas of forensic science like trace analysis, firearms, tool marks, and fingerprint identification are never going to go away, but the trend is toward getting more and more information from the biological samples. These other areas will become more of support areas. They're going to provide information that's important in the investigation of the crime, but they are going to be less important than they may have been in the past.

Forensic Science is a broad term-check out all of the different disciplines of forensic science at http://www.aafs.org/choosing-career#Kinds of FS.

For more information on degree programs see: http://www.criminaljusticeprograms.com/specialty/forensic-science-degrees/