Photo of Dr Penny Haddrill

Ask Penny

Please post your questions for this week in the comments section below. Penny will select the most liked/interesting questions and publish her response to these on this step by Wednesday of Week 2.

First of all, I’d like to extend a very warm welcome to you all, and thank you for joining the Introduction to Forensic Science course. It’s great to see so many people from all across the world taking the course and getting involved with the discussions. Thank you for all of your great questions this week, and for all of the positive comments about how much you are enjoying the course. I wish that we had time to answer all of your questions but I’ve focused on those that were most popular and most closely related to my own area of knowledge, which is forensic biology, and in particular forensic genetics.

I’d also like to explain that there are some questions about the case that I’m not going to give you answers to just now, either because the answers will be revealed over the coming weeks, or because we want your knowledge and understanding of the case to develop alongside the evidence being presented to you.

There were several questions this week that related to becoming a forensic scientist or crime scene photographer and what qualifications are needed, as well as what specialisations there are. Margaret Pitts, Mailea Rambeiri and Antonio Luis Narango Borrego all contributed to a discussion relating to this. In terms of the qualifications needed to work in forensic science, it is now commonplace for a Bachelors degree in forensic science to be a prerequisite for a job in forensic science; a lot of the scientists working in forensic labs around the world go on to have Masters level qualifications. There are a variety of postgraduate qualifications in forensic science across the UK, and the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences accredits a number of UK and international courses. One of the MSc Forensic Science courses in the UK is offered by the Centre for Forensic Science at the University of Strathclyde, and if anyone would like any further information about this, you can find this at the course website.

In terms of specialisations, within forensic laboratories, most scientists will work within a reasonably specialised section, e.g. chemistry, drugs, DNA, biology, toxicology and they will focus on evidence types related to these specialisations. Most forensic providers will also have scientists who specialise in blood pattern analysis (Julia Arnold, this is an example of a specialist who may be requested to attend a scene after any first responders and a coroner where required), firearms, impression evidence (e.g. fingerprints and footwear marks), and many will have specialist sexual offences teams. There are also other less common specialisations, such as forensic odontology and forensic entomology—these specialisations are usually not required frequently enough to justify having scientists who specialise in these fields within forensic service providers, so these specialisations will often be provided by researchers or consultants who assist with investigations from time to time. Asgar Asgarli also asked about experience and working in forensic anthropology, this is a highly specialised field with a handful of forensic anthropologists/archaeologists employed throughout the world. In the UK these specialists are employed in the private sector and do consultancy work. Gaining internships as part of degree studies can be the best way to provide invaluable insight into these specialisations and obtain work experience.

In regards to crime scene photography, the scene of crime officers who “process” the scene, receive substantial photography training, so there is no requirement to have existing photography qualifications. Heather Blevins asked about crime scene investigators and whether the individuals in white suits at a crime scene are police officers or trained forensic staff. The answer to this depends a bit on jurisdiction as in some countries, such as the USA and South Africa, crime scene investigators will tend to be police officers, whereas in the UK they will not be police officers, although in some parts of the country they may be civilians employed by police forces. However, they will always be trained in the forensic investigation of crime scenes and will therefore know what to look for and how to find it.

Marissa J, Chris Johnston, Ekatepͷha Γankͷha and Barbara K-S asked a really interesting question about the physical and mental health of forensic scientists, especially at scenes where they might be exposed to traumatic events. For the most part, a forensic scientist has little interaction with the victim, suspect or any relatives of the victim/suspect, they are just names on the paperwork and this helps to remain a healthy detachment from the case. However, there are still occasions where this is impossible, for example where there is a body at a scene that you attend, where the circumstances are particularly traumatic or where the case is receiving a lot of public attention and so is covered on many news and media outlets. In these circumstances it can be very difficult to overcome the emotional aspects of the work and to not “take your work home with you”, but all Police staff and forensic scientists have access to free counselling and assistance to help them to process any traumatic events they may be involved in.

Breanne-Rebecca Jarvis and Colin Pardington also asked extremely interesting questions about anticipating future developments and the ability to work on cold cases from a pre-DNA era. There are legal requirements in the UK and internationally about the retention of all materials from crimes and crime scene exhibits, whether it is a blood stain sampled at a crime scene or a fibre recovered in the lab from a suspect’s clothing; these are all retained and securely store. We do not necessarily know what the next “big discovery” in forensic science may be, but we can take all appropriate steps to preserve evidence through detailed documentation, maintaining the integrity and continuity of all exhibits and evidence should it be needed for examination in the future. In terms of solving cold cases, the advancements in DNA profiling have allowed us to revisit older cases and use more sensitive techniques to gain DNA from offenders which the police can then use to re-investigate a crime. Some good examples of this include the murder of Marion Croft, the murder of Jacqueline Poole and the World’s End murders.

Sujatha Rao asked about forensic psychology, the impact of mental health and the motivation for committing offences. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about forensic psychology as this wouldn’t come under the umbrella of forensic science in the biological/chemical sense, but I understand that the training for this would involve a qualification in psychology and then specialism into forensic criminology/psychology.

Alexandra Verzes asked an extremely interesting question about the percentage of cases that are solved using only forensic science, unfortunately, there are no statistics that are kept to be able to illustrate the impact of forensic science on criminal proceedings, however, I can say that legally no person can be convicted on DNA evidence alone, there must always be corroborating evidence in a case.

Grzegorz Bak asked about cases where forensic science cannot be utilised. There are certainly circumstances and types of crimes where forensic evidence can be much more difficult to detect, as Grzegorz suggests, one example would be a fire scene – although sometimes it is the water that compromises the evidence more than the fire itself! However, even at a fire or a scene that has been cleaned, it is not uncommon to detect forensic evidence, especially as the science and technology continues to develop. The biggest impact on the detection of forensic science is usually time, as evidence is naturally lost over time and so it can be critical to seize any evidence and/or secure a crime scene as soon as possible to maximise the potential for evidence recovery with minimal contamination.

Kim Waghorn and Louise H both discussed the time it takes to get results from the lab to the police, and also mention the impact of TV shows and books. The UK have the quickest turnaround time in the world for casework and can usually provide initial results within 24 hours if the case is classified as urgent. Non urgent cases are processed within 10 calendar days, so not the immediate results you see in CSI!! Other countries have turnaround times of weeks or months so it can be extremely variable.

Apologies for those who questions have not been answered on this occasion, there will be another opportunity for questions in week 3 and I look forward to hearing from you.

Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Forensic Science

University of Strathclyde