Introduction

2022 National Forensic Science Week Ask an Expert

2022 National Forensic Science Week Ask an Expert

Overview

The FTCoE has conducted a variety of written interviews with forensic professionals in various forensic science disciplines. From digital evidence to trace analysis and medicolegal death investigation to DNA analysis, the FTCoE showcases real-world perspectives on the current state of forensic science. Read along to see what unique challenges affect each discipline, what advice the interviewees have for early career professionals, what the future may look like in each discipline, and much more!

Digital Evidence

Josh Brunty, GASF, CFVT, SCERS, CHFI, CCME, MCFE

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Josh Brunty is an Associate Professor of Digital Forensics in the School of Forensic & Criminal Justice Sciences at Marshall University in Huntington, WV. Prior to his appointment as professor, he worked as a Digital Forensics Technical Leader and Examiner with Marshall University’s Forensic Science Center and the West Virginia State Police’s Digital Forensics Unit, working on active cases for over 8 years. He serves as Executive Secretary and Member of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Organization of Scientific Area Committee (OSAC) on Digital Evidence. He has served as Academician Commissioner of the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) and is also a Fellow of the Digital and Multimedia Sciences Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). He has published various articles and books, most notably co-authoring the Taylor & Francis textbook Social Media Investigation for Law Enforcement, which is still used in police academies and academic institutions throughout the United States. Additionally, he co-authored the JFS article on the Forensic Inspection of Sensitive User Data and Artifacts from Smartwatch Wearable Devices, which received the 2019 AAFS Digital & Multimedia Sciences Most Outstanding Research Award, in addition to being recognized by JFS as a 2019 noteworthy article. 

In regard to your career, what accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?

One of the things I am most proud of is seeing those I have mentored or taught over the years, whether during my time in the laboratory or during my time as a professor, succeed in the field. I get the greatest joy and satisfaction from seeing someone I have taught or mentored earn promotions, receive accolades, or even solve high-profile cases. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?  What do you enjoy the least?

Computer technology evolves rapidly but sporadically. Some attributes of computers last for decades, and some only for a few weeks. These rapid changes have never allowed me to get bored and lose interest in the field of digital and multimedia forensics. On the flip side, when these technological changes happen so quickly, it can be extremely frustrating and discouraging until they can be figured out.  

What advice would you give to aspiring forensic scientists in your discipline? How can they become more involved in the field? 

Get involved in your discipline as early and as often as possible. Even if it is a student organization or a membership of a national/international organization (such as the AAFS student affiliate), each connection you make now is a connection you will have throughout your entire career. Moreover, those connections made early in your career will have a more profound impact as you progress into your chosen forensic discipline. Also, get involved by teaching and informing the community about forensic science. Whether it be a civic organization, elementary school class, or speaking about your experiences to a college class, every minute you invest in community service broadens the community’s understanding of forensic science and its importance both now and in the future.  

What are some areas that pose unique challenges for your discipline?

Technology changes so fast in the digital forensics discipline. Digital devices such as mobile phones, computers, and even cars generate many artifacts, most of which do not contribute to understanding what happened in a particular event or crime. The challenge is finding useful information and separating it from irrelevant information. 

Looking towards the future, how do you see your field progressing? What changes would you like to see implemented?   

As digital forensics continues to progress as both a discipline and science, there will be a greater need for more professionals and analysts that understand the underlying technology of what they are investigating. We’ve already seen the field divide into specialty subdisciplines such as multimedia forensics, mobile device forensics, cloud forensics, and even vehicle forensics. As these niche subdisciplines continue to become more advanced, so will the need for properly trained and experienced professionals capable of extracting relevant evidence from these technologies. With all these technological changes happening so quickly, it burdens digital forensics laboratories to keep up with the demand. As such, I believe there may be value in laboratories pooling resources to perform these tasks. Sharing techniques, tactics, procedures, and even technology resources could go a long way in helping digital forensics and forensic science make an even more significant positive impact on the community.  


Toxicology

Nichole Bynum, M.S., D-ABFT-FT 

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A research forensic scientist at RTI International’s Center for Forensic Sciences, Nichole Bynum is a board-certified toxicologist with Diplomate status from the American Board of Forensic Toxicology. Ms. Bynum has over 16 years of experience in forensic toxicology and her expertise includes analyzing drugs of abuse in human matrices by using various techniques and analytical instrumentation. She has also served as the principal investigator (PI) and co-PI for several National Institute of Justice-funded research projects. Prior to joining RTI, Ms. Bynum was a forensic chemist for the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. 

When did you first recognize your interest in and/or decide to pursue a career in forensic science? 

When I was in graduate school, a forensic scientist from the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory spoke at one of our chemistry department seminars. This was my first introduction to forensic science, and I was very intrigued. After graduation, I worked for a pharmaceutical company, but I didn’t like the type of work I was doing. One day I decided to search for forensic job opportunities. One thing led to another, and I was invited by the Chief Medical Examiner to come to the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to observe autopsies. While I was there, he said that there was a forensic chemist position open in the toxicology lab and that I should apply. I did end up applying and got the job. That was in 2003 and I’ve been working in forensic science ever since.  

What do you enjoy most about your job?  What do you enjoy the least? 

I enjoy being able to work on a variety of projects. One minute I may be in the lab analyzing controlled substances in biological matrices and the next day, I’m assisting a working group on medicolegal death investigation. However, since most of my work comes from grants, it can get stressful having to constantly come up with ideas for proposals. As soon as you win, it’s time to start thinking about the next idea.  

How has the pandemic affected your current position? Are there any pandemic-related changes that you believe will turn into normal practice? 

Since a large part of my work involves being in the lab, I was considered an essential employee and worked on campus throughout the pandemic. It was strange at first because the campus was deserted. During my daily lunch walks, I felt like I was in a scene from The Walking Dead. There were days when I did not have to work in the lab, and I enjoyed working from my home office. I believe that allowing staff to work from home, full-time, or part-time will become normal practice. 

What advice would you give to aspiring forensic scientists in your discipline? How can they become more involved in the field? 

I would advise aspiring forensic scientists to major in a hard science (e.g., biology, chemistry) along with forensic science. Also, they should join a professional forensic organization while in school. Many organizations have committees and events specifically for students and young professionals. It’s a great opportunity for aspiring forensic scientists to meet professionals in their specific area of interest, find internships, and present research findings for those that are working in a university research lab. 

What are some areas that pose unique challenges for your discipline? 

My main area of research is forensic toxicology. One of the challenges we face is trying to stay on top of drug trends. Backyard chemists are constantly creating new drugs and it’s our job to be aware of them and develop methods for detecting them. It’s a never-ending cycle.  


Chemistry

Rabi Ann Musah, Ph.D.

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Rabi Ann Musah is Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University at Albany, State University of New York. A major thrust of Professor Musah’s research is in the forensic identification of plant- and animal-derived materials using ambient ionization mass spectrometry and artificial intelligence. Her areas of interest include identification of new psychoactive substances, particularly when infused within complex plant, food, and cosmetic product matrices; development of tools for the species of insects that colonize decomposing remains to facilitate postmortem interval determination; development of methods for the field identification of endangered woods in order to combat illegal logging; and development of methods for the field identification of endangered animals such as some species of talking parrots. Her research program has been supported with grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Justice.  

What type of daily tasks, research, or other discipline-related projects are you regularly engaged in within your occupation? 

We develop mass spectrometric techniques designed to solve challenging problems in the forensic analysis of complex materials. Our areas of concentration include development of analyses of emerging psychoactive substances; development of strategies to rapidly differentiate between the two varieties of Cannabis sativa (i.e., marijuana and hemp); and development of techniques for the identification of endangered wildlife in order to help curtail illegal trafficking of plants and animals. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?  What do you enjoy the least? 

I enjoy serving as a mentor to up and coming scientists. I also very much enjoy the process of scientific discovery—learning that a problem exists; devising a way to solve it; solving it; and disseminating the results so that others can benefit from the discoveries. The part I least like is the perpetual process of seeking funding to support the work. It is one of the most stressful aspects.  

How do you disseminate new information/research throughout your laboratory/place of work?  How do you incorporate new techniques, technologies, and best practices into your laboratory/place of work? 

Our work is on the creative side, in the sense that we develop techniques that forensic labs can use to analyze materials. This means that rather than incorporating new technologies per se, we are creating them. Our primary means of dissemination is through publications in relevant journals as well as conference participation.  

What are some areas that pose unique challenges for your discipline?

In the academic research environment, it is often difficult to gain ready access to scheduled substances even though we are researchers that need to have access to them to develop forensic techniques for their analysis. Even though we have registrations that enable us to acquire samples, the limited sample sizes to which we have access often preclude the level of testing and additional work we need to do at any one time, and this slows down our progress.  

Looking towards the future, how do you see your field progressing? What changes would you like to see implemented?  

The field would benefit from greater collaboration between academic scientists and field practitioners, both in terms of method development and solving crimes. This approach is much more well developed in some countries in Europe and in this regard, the U.S. lags behind. 


Trace

Lindsey Admire, ABC - HF

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Lindsey Admire has been a Forensic Scientist at the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory (NCSCL) since July 2006.  Assigned to the Trace Evidence Section, she specializes in hair, fiber, tape, and physical fit analysis and has testified as an expert witness in North Carolina.  She currently serves as Technical Leader for the Hair, Fiber, and Tape disciplines. She has bachelor's degrees in Biology and Chemistry from Western Carolina University and also holds a master's degree in Biochemistry from Indiana University at Bloomington. Lindsey frequently travels throughout North Carolina teaching collection and preservation of trace evidence for law enforcement agencies. Lindsey is certified through the American Board of Criminalistics in Hair and Fiber and is a professional member of the American Society of Trace Evidence Examiners (ASTEE), the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists (MAFS), and the Southern Association of Forensic Scientists (SAFS). Lindsey has most recently contributed to Hematoxylin hair root staining research at the NCSCL. 

When did you first recognize your interest in and/or decide to pursue a career in forensic science?

I have always been interested in the natural sciences from a young age, especially biology.  My original pursuits were to become a veterinarian and I actively pursued those goals through my junior year in college.  After working and shadowing in several veterinarian offices I decided that being a vet wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my career.  In my senior year, I took a criminalistics course and spoke with the detective who taught the class. Since my background was in natural sciences, I did not think I would be qualified to work in the field of criminal justice.  He told me that I could have a very important role to play by working in the lab instead of out in the field.  I still wasn’t sure, so I pursued a master’s degree in biochemistry without any specific career goals in mind.  When speaking with a family member who worked with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation about both my reservations and interests, he told me about the crime laboratory.  I remembered that conversation from my senior year with the detective and realized this was the exact path I should pursue as it tied together my interests in criminalistics with my love of science. 

In regard to your career, what accomplishment(s) are you most proud of? 

I am most proud of the implementation of hematoxylin staining as a way for improving selecting hair roots for DNA analysis at the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory.  This implementation came about due to research and a validation study conducted in our laboratory and has resulted in a higher rate of success for hair roots sent for DNA analysis. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?  What do you enjoy the least? 

What I enjoy most about my job is the variability.  I am trained in hair, fiber, tape, and physical fit analysis so no two cases are ever the same.  As a result, I never know what each day will hold and what challenges could lead to a new way of thinking.  Each day becomes a new learning experience.  I do not enjoy knowing that my job will always be needed as long as crime occurs. 

What advice would you give to aspiring forensic scientists in your discipline? How can they become more involved in the field? 

My advice would be to try and find internships and experience the field first-hand.  Sometimes what sounds good in the classroom may not be as interesting when you are seeing the evidence processing first-hand.  Interning in a laboratory allows you to see the field you are interested in as well as experience other fields you may not have thought about before.  You can become more involved in the field by joining professional organizations, networking with people, and attending conferences. Get involved in research projects and try to connect with a mentor in the field. 

Are there any future areas of research or accessible training topics that would be beneficial to your field?  

Science is always changing with new discoveries and progressions.  The more training available, the better a scientist can use what they learn to process evidence and interpret the findings.  Communication between researchers and scientists is the key to having beneficial training opportunities.  Having open communication between researchers and scientists allows for relevant training to assist with areas that may present challenges in casework.  Many scientists are not able to perform their own research so we rely on others to tackle the challenges presented and provide guidance with new methods and techniques that may be used in casework. 


DNA

Sarah Seashols-Williams, Ph.D.

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Dr. Sarah Seashols-Williams is an Associate Professor and the graduate program director for the Forensic Science Department at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia.  Prior to joining VCU, she worked for four years as a Forensic Scientist in the Forensic Biology Section of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. In addition to teaching, she performs research in forensic biology, with a focus on improving the beginning of the evidence workflow through body fluid identification and cell separation methods. Dr. Williams received her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the College of William & Mary. She graduated from VCU with a Master of Science degree in Criminal Justice, specializing in Forensic Science, and with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She has publications in forensic science, molecular biology, and biochemistry, has been a member of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Forensic Scientists since 2004, is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and is currently serving as a Commissioner for the Forensic Science Education Program Accreditation Commission (FEPAC), and as the FEPAC representative for the Forensic Laboratory Needs Technology Working Group (FLN-TWG). 

When did you first recognize your interest in and/or decide to pursue a career in forensic science?

I didn’t really know what Forensic Science was when I enrolled in the M.S. program at VCU – I just knew that I wanted to work in molecular biology in a way that was productive and helpful to society. I was frustrated with basic biomedical research and thought that forensic DNA analysis would be right up my alley. Fortunately, I was right! 

Who is or was your greatest role model or mentor? How have they inspired you and helped shape you into the forensic professional you are today? 

I have two – my first role model/mentor in forensic science was Lisa Schiermeier-Wood at the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. She was a really empathic, intuitive supervisor with high standards and imparted a real love and passion for forensic science.   

 My second was and continues to be Tracey Dawson Green. She took a chance on me and helped me make the leap from analyst to professor and has always and continues to demonstrate effective leadership and advocacy for students, faculty, and our department at VCU. 

What type of daily tasks, research, or other discipline-related projects are you regularly engaged in within your occupation?

As a research professor at a FEPAC-accredited program, I spend much of my time teaching, mentoring M.S. and Ph.D. students in their research and running the graduate program. My research projects revolve around molecular methods of body fluid identification and streamlining the front end of the forensic DNA workflow. 

What do you enjoy most about your job?  What do you enjoy the least? 

I really enjoy my work as a research professor. I have the freedom to pursue whatever research questions intrigue me and digging into the questions that could help the forensic DNA field, either immediately in their casework or further into the future with new technologies.  I also truly enjoy training the next generation of forensic scientists.  It’s so great to see them at meetings and watch their careers and personal lives bloom on social media and LinkedIn.  I suppose my least favorite part is administrative paperwork, which can be found in any field. 

How has the pandemic affected your current position? Are there any pandemic-related changes that you believe will turn into normal practice? 

Not much has changed in the long term at the University in response to the pandemic.  We pretty quickly went back to in-person teaching, given the high priority that we put on hands-on learning and experiences for our students.  We are more amenable to meeting virtually now, which makes the workday a little more flexible, meetings easier to schedule, and allows us to bring in more experts from around the world to give seminars to our students and serve on research committees. 


Medicolegal Death Investigation

Erin Worrell, D-ABMDI

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Erin Worrell has 16 years of experience working as a Medicolegal Death Investigator.  She is currently the Chief of Investigations at the Denver Office of the Medical Examiner in Denver, Colorado where she has worked since 2019.  Prior to the Denver Office, she worked as a Medicolegal Death Investigator supervisor at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office in Cleveland, Ohio.  In 2013, Erin Worrell became a registered Diplomate with the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigation.  She is currently a member of the Society of Forensic Toxicologists (SOFT), the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS), the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners (IAC&ME) and has presented multiple times with each organization. Erin Worrell has lectured all over the country on drug related deaths and is currently serving as a subject matter expert on the IAC&ME Opioid/Drug Overdose Committee, the SOFT Postmortem Toxicology Committee, and the AAFS Opioid and Emerging Drugs Committee. 

When did you first recognize your interest in and/or decide to pursue a career in forensic science? 

I had the luxury of growing up in this industry because my father was the Lab Director and Chief Forensic Toxicologist who worked at a medical examiner's office. I would go into work with him to see the laboratory, see what he did, look at the equipment pretending I could read the results from gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) equipment or pretending to be the one spinning the blood to read the ethanol levels on DUI cases, and of course ask him questions all the time about work. I knew I could never be a lab person because I have the attention span of a fly and chemistry was not my strong suit. With my love of forensic science and law enforcement, it only made sense to me to pursue a career in the medicolegal death investigation field.  

In regard to your career, what accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?

For me, something that I am proud of is always being able to teach and mentor. If I teach one person something in this field, I am very happy and excited. I think from the death investigation perspective, we are the beginning of everyone’s end. We see things from the start so we can alert our medical examiner’s/coroner’s office as to our findings. They then have a better idea or direction to know what to test for or look at or think about regarding the cause and manner of death. I love taking what I see on scene and sharing that information with law enforcement as well as other colleagues in the industry, emphasizing communication and building relationships to help everyone succeed 

Who is or was your greatest role model or mentor? How have they inspired you and helped shape you into the forensic professional you are today? 

This is easy! My greatest role model/mentor in this field has been my father. Whenever I have a question about anything in this field, I go to him looking for his guidance/advice or if I ever need to talk something out because of what I’ve seen or heard on scene(s). In turn, he has taught me ways to make sense of what I see, understand, comprehend, keep me balanced as a human, and remind me to always remain humble. He has always taught me the importance of making sure to have relationships with everyone in the office, so I understand their job and how my job impacts theirs. He has always encouraged me to work with other departments to make sure I can jump in and assist anytime it’s busy or if help is needed. Furthermore, he has always told me to make sure to obtain admission specimens on hospital cases because forensic pathologists would want to test those if they were not getting them already. My father has introduced me to many different forensic organizations of which I now have memberships, often with the point of showing me the world of forensics and to expose me to other disciplines. I have had an amazing foundation, understanding, and love for this field because of my father and for that I am very thankful.  

What do you enjoy most about your job?  What do you enjoy the least? 

Good Question! What I love most about this field is being an advocate for the dead. I love being able to speak for them, making sure that their voice is still heard. I love looking through medical records, learning about the deceased, and being able to tell their stories. I love learning about diseases and how things affect the body as well as watching autopsies or reading toxicology reports. It is endless how much information we learn daily, and nothing is ever the same. I also really enjoy working with families and helping them through this process because it is so important that they are heard, not ignored. I am aware that no one wants to meet their local death investigator, but we fill such a purposeful role for the ones who have passed and for that I am thankful that I can be there for them. I don’t really have anything I enjoy the least about my job because I truly love my job, it never feels like I am going to work. 

What advice would you give to aspiring forensic scientists in your discipline? How can they become more involved in the field? 

The biggest advice I would give any aspiring forensic scientists in my discipline is be involved. Join forensic organizations, go to meetings, open yourself to this world, learn, meet people, and do not be afraid to ask questions. Meet everyone in your office and understand what they do and try to cross-train with them so you can help if it is needed. Have appreciation and respect for one another.  



Check back each day this week for more interviews!


Funding for this Forensic Technology Center of Excellence event has been provided by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this event are those of the presenter(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Contact us at ForensicCOE@rti.org with any questions and subscribe to our newsletter for notifications.


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