The Real World of Forensic Chemistry: What They Don't Tell You on CSI

AIChE Webinar
Originally delivered Jun 15, 2011

While certain popular TV shows have bestowed an almost mythical aura upon forensic sciences in the public mind, forensic chemistry is very much the sound application of practical chemical measurement to real world problems. It is, however, a quite different application of the chemical sciences than would be found in a typical industrial or academic setting, and requires a different mindset than many of the more “traditional” scientific professions. While the academic community tends to place highest value upon novelty and elegance in its work, forensic chemistry assigns the utmost importance to robustness. When someone’s liberty, livelihood, or possibly even life is at stake, a forensic chemist needs to be performing an analysis, not an experiment. In contrast to the typical industrial environment, a forensic chemist can rarely predict the subject of the next analysis. Yesterday might have been an unknown white powder for identification, today a urine sample from a local police chief to be analyzed for evidence of illicit drug use, and tomorrow a sample of chemicals from a water treatment plant for evidence of tampering. This means that forensic chemists need proficiency in the widest possible array of analytical methodologies and must be able to rapidly adapt proven technologies and techniques to new sample types.

This webinar provides an overview of the practice of forensic chemistry, showing the differences, both for better and for worse, between reality and the fantastical images put forth by popular media. Participants are introduced to the wide variety of disciplines within forensic chemistry, showing the array of scientific and technical skills that can be applied to forensic investigations. There is also an overview of different career pathways within forensic chemistry, and of educational expectations for careers in forensic science.

Professional Development Hours
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Presenter(s): 

Dr. Jason E. Schaff

Dr. Schaff has worked for the last twelve years as a forensic toxicologist with the Chemistry Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory. There he analyzes a wide variety of specimens submitted by various federal, state, and local agencies supporting investigations of product tampering, drug-facilitated sexual assaults, public corruption, suspicious deaths of U.S. citizens overseas, and various other crimes.

Dr. Schaff received a B.S. in chemistry in 1991 from Yale University and a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry in 1997 from the University of Minnesota. After completing...

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Webinar content is available with the kind permission of the author(s) solely for the purpose of furthering AIChE’s mission to educate, inform and improve the practice of professional chemical engineering. All other uses are forbidden without the express consent of the author(s). For permission to re-use, please contact chemepermissions@aiche.org.