May is Public Safety month at University of Maryland University College’s (UMUC) Office of Career Services. Throughout the month, we are highlighting the University’s Public Safety experts to examine career and industry trends, and provide students and alumni a chance to learn about different career paths within this industry.
Recently, UMUC Investigative Forensics and Public Safety Undergraduate Program Chair Susan Blankenship answered questions about career trends and opportunities in forensic science. Blankenship spent 16 years working as a forensic scientist with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Hagerstown Police Department. While her specialty was forensic drug analysis, she also performed crime scene investigations, latent print analysis, questioned document analysis, serology and quality assurance. Blankenship holds a bachelor’s in Chemistry from Mary Washington College, a master’s in Forensic Science from The George Washington University, and is graduating in May with her Doctor of Management from UMUC.
Q. With the evolution of technology, how important is the role of a forensic scientist in law enforcement today? How is technology changing investigative forensics?
A. The role of scientific evidence has become more important over the years and it is difficult today to secure a conviction without some type of physical evidence. But, physical evidence by itself is usually not enough: someone needs to analyze or interpret that physical evidence and place it into context. That is the job of a forensic scientist. A crime scene investigator locates that physical evidence at a crime scene, at times using newer technology such as special lights or vacuums or special technology to allow them to see latent (or hidden) prints. For the person who compares those latent prints, be they fingerprints, footprints, shoe prints, tire prints or others, computer databases now allow examiners to compare the unknown print to prints from across the country in the hope of making a preliminary match. The examiner must still compare the unknown and possible known prints side-by-side to determine if they actually do match, but the computer has allowed the elimination of multiple non-matches, allowing the examiner to concentrate on only those print which have a chance of matching.
One of the most important aspects of crime scene investigation is documentation of that crime scene. Technology such as digital cameras that also take video has allowed for easier documentation of crime scenes. No longer does a CSI have to wait for the film to be developed to determine if the entire crime scene was documented if all of the images are clear, if all evidence has a long range, a medium range and a short range photograph. This allows for more complete documentation of the crime scene. And, by taking video with the same camera, the equipment required to fully document a crime scene is much more compact and easily transportable. A computer also makes the sketching process easier. Rather than having to hand sketch a crime scene, a CSI can use a hand sketch, input the measurements into a computer program and produce a two-dimensional sketch that is easily readable and understandable by the judge and jury. Technology has helped the job of investigative forensics.
Q. In addition to law enforcement, what other career paths exist in investigative forensics?
A. The big one is as a crime scene investigator. More and more law enforcement agencies are moving away from using sworn officers to perform crime scene investigation and turning to professionals in that field. This allows for the sworn officers to do their law enforcement jobs and allows for crime scene investigations that are grounded in the science of crime scene investigation. In addition, there are some jobs within a forensic lab, such as a latent print examiner, firearms and tool marks examiner and handwriting comparison examiner, where the educational requirements are a bachelor’s degree with some science. UMUC’s Investigative Forensics degree meets this requirement.
Q. What inspired you to pursue a career in forensic science? What education path did you pursue? How did you begin your career?
A. I was lucky enough to take a neat tour of the FBI Academy, where their Special Research Laboratory was housed at that time, during my senior year of college. I was a chemistry major, with plans on attending medical school…until I worked in a hospital. I hated it. So, at the point where we went to the FBI Academy I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. At the end of the tour, our tour guide who was a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) trainer handed out applications for the DEA to be a forensic drug chemist. I applied, was accepted, passed the background check and started at the DEA. I loved it, but I also knew being in a lab all day, every day was not for me. When the position opened up at the Hagerstown Police Department (HPD) that included crime scene investigations, I knew that would be the best of both worlds. That worked until I had a child. My husband is a detective with HPD and therefore when a crime scene happened, one of us would have to stay home…and that was usually me. I had been teaching part time at UMUC and when the position opened up at UMUC, I jumped at the chance to pass along what I have learned throughout my career.
Q. How have some of your career experiences shaped you into the professional you are today?
A. Crime scene investigation is not the career shown on TV. Most crime scenes take hours to days to process. They require a high level of attention to detail along with the ability to see the big picture. This has granted me the ability to see the fine level details as well as the big picture at the same time. Building effective curriculum takes both of those skills. Performing drug analysis can be tedious, as the same steps are repeated over and over again for each item of evidence. Public safety has many areas where the job tasks are repetitive and not necessarily exciting, although they are very important. That knowledge is important, as most jobs have that non-exciting, repetitive aspect to them and being able to work through those days is just as important as being able to handle the unexpected in any job.
Q. With the advent of television shows such as CSI, many people are interested in pursuing a career path in crime scene investigation or investigative forensics. However, to be successful, what personality and character traits must investigative forensic scientists possess?
A. First you have to have a strong stomach! That even includes non-crime scene investigators, as working on evidence in other sections can include blood-stained or body fluid stained evidence. Next, you have to have really good communication skills. Although not shown on television, approximately half of the time in forensics is spent writing reports, reading and peer-reviewing the reports of others, and testifying in court. The conventional wisdom is that a jury collectively has about an eighth grade education level, so all reports and testimony has to be geared towards that level. Also, there are times when the reports are admitted without the testimony of the person who wrote that report, so the report must be understandable by the jury without further explanation. Last, you never know when that case will end up in appeals or even the Supreme Court. Making sure every report you write is one you would be proud of being read by the Supreme Court Justices will help with report writing.
Q. With the increased interest in investigative forensics, what advice would you give UMUC students entering this field?
A. Having lab or crime scene experience is important. Although a lab class or co-op is not required, it is highly recommended. Not only can having that actual experience help you in determining if this really is the right job for you, it will allow the hiring authorities to know that you understand what the job entails and that you are ready for it.
Q. For UMUC students and alumni already working in forensics, what advice would you give them on how to keep advancing in their current organization and within the field
A. Get certified in your field! Certification is becoming more and more important within forensics. Also, join your local chapter of the International Association of Identification (IAI) (theiai.org). Attending IAI meetings and pursuing certification through the IAI shows that you are serious about your career and that you want to improve your knowledge base and your abilities. And, as we are coming to a time when certification will be mandatory, already being certified will assist you in furthering your career.
Q. Any final thoughts or recommendations you want to share with UMUC students and alumni currently working or entering the forensics industry?
A. Sorry, no it is not like CSI. But, it is such an important career. Not only can forensic analysis help to prove that someone is guilty, more importantly it can prove that someone is innocent. Yes, it is a job with all that a job entails, but it is such an important job.
For more information on career opportunities and resources available to UMUC students and alumni from the Office of Career Services, click here.
Jennifer Tomasovic is the director, Communications for Career Services and Alumni Relations at University of Maryland University College. She has spent her 15-year career crafting communications strategies and messages using both marketing and public relations tactics to enhance the brand and reputation for both the clients and organizations she has represented.