Accessibility links

Breaking News

Forensic Scientists: America's New Pop Culture Heroes


American television viewers who can't get enough of the popular show "CSI" may now watch versions set in Las Vegas, New York and Miami. Short for "Crime Scene Investigation," the shows all move from crime scenes to science labs, where the main characters identify victims, learn how they died, and help catch the killers as in this "CSI" scene:

MALE: "You have any ID, Alex?

FEMALE: No, not yet. We do know he died with an empty stomach, full bladder, strong smell of alcohol.

MALE: Respiratory failure?

FEMALE: Wouldn't be the first teenager to drink himself to death."

Between weekly episodes of "CSI," fans of the genre can also watch shows like "Forensic Files" "The New Detectives," and "Cold Case Files," or read novels by best selling authors like Patricia Cornwell. She's drawn on her experience working for Virginia's Chief Medical Examiner to create a prize-winning series featuring a crime solving doctor named Kay Scarpetta. Ms. Cornwell believes the huge strides made in the forensic sciences help account for the popular interest:

"When you look at a body or you look at a piece of clothing left behind, we've always asked the same questions. What does this mean? Why is there this tear? What is this stain? But what is different now is that we have objective tools that can interpret some of these hieroglyphics and begin to unlock the secrets of what went on."

Writers like Patricia Cornwell offer readers a chance to learn details of those advances while they're being entertained. Her latest crime thriller, called "Trace," involves the use of trace, or microscopic, evidence to solve the mysterious death of a 14 year-old girl:

"Swabs of the girl's tongue reveal fibers and even what turns out to be human bone dust. I actually sent two trace evidence examiners to Paris to go through the catacombs and collect soil samples to study human bone dust. I do a lot of research to see what something would look like, and then figure out what would the person think if they found something like this, and where did it come from."

A growing number of American young people now dream of following in the footsteps of fictitious forensic scientists. Universities across the United States are establishing new courses and programs in the field, while existing programs are experiencing a dramatic rise in applications. Max Houck is director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University:

"We started in 1997 with four graduates. This past year, out of probably about 4500 freshmen, over 500 listed their major as forensic science."

But Mister Houck says there's also a high drop-out rate:

"Studens watch 'CSI' or whatever T-V show you want to point out, and they have an impression of what actually happens in the work. Most of them don't realize how much science there is in the field, and so they come up hard and fast against their first year of biology and chemistry, and they come to the realization that it's not wearing cool sunglasses, driving a Hummer (an expensive sport-utility vehicle), and running around with a badge and a gun."

Reporter: "Are you a fan of the novels and of shows like 'CSI?'"

Houck: "I'm a fan of some of the novels. I'm not a big fan of the show, although some of the writers call me and ask me technical questions, and I'm glad to help them. But ignoring the fact that the show is 43 minutes or whatever and everything gets solved in that time period, minus the commercials, rarely if ever do you have one person do everything from the crime scene to the analysis to the arrest to the interviewthe whole thing."

Best-selling novelist Kathy Reichs agrees that the stories aren't always true to life. She's the author of "Monday Mourning," "Deja Dead" and other books that draw on her work as a forensic anthropologist, commuting between labs in North Carolina and the Canadian city of Montreal. While her stories are based on her own cases and cutting edge scientific research, she says her real life job isn't always as exciting as her fiction:

"There are cases that are more mundane than others where you find old bones in the woods, and they turn out to have been dragged from a cemetery by dogs or something. And there are moments of tedium. I've done exhumations where I had to spend two weeks just teasing pieces of leatherized flesh off the bones before I could even look at them."

And Kathy Reichs says that in reality, cases don't always get resolved as neatly as they do in books or on television:

"I have a warehouse at my lab, and it's full of boxes, each with a number and each of those is a case that hasn't been solved. I've actually had cases brought to me by coroners because the family could not accept the initial finding that it was undetermined. The families feel in many cases, because of watching these shows, that everything can be answered. And that's just not true."

But Kathy Reichs says she's delighted by the constant inquiries she gets from young people interested in becoming forensic scientists. Max Houck of West Virginia University agrees that the best selling novels and hit T-V shows have been good for his profession, and for science education in general:

"All kinds of science programs, especially at the high school level, have seen a huge upswing in interest, and I think that's largely because they do make it look cool. There is some science involved, and they do try to base it on cases or papers that have come out in the academic literature. So the students see that, and that's part of what gets them hooked."

Max Houck compares the trend to the fascination with the space race starting in the late 1950s. Earlier generations watched rockets go up and dreamed of being astronauts. Today they watch crimes being solved and want to be forensic scientists. And while only a few will succeed, many more will learn just how interesting science can be.