Friday, July 30, 2010

The CSI's Tale

Forensic Science seems to be all the rage these days. Between 2003 and 2008, British universities experienced an jump from 2,191 to 5,664 yearly applicants. This invites the question: why? Well, according to the Skills For Justice (SFJ) quango, television programmes such as CSI, Silent Witness and Waking The Dead have made relatively little contribution to this 160% increase.

Pull the other one. Being a Forensics graduate, I know that this argument is fallacious; as does the Head of Forensics at the University of Chester, an inspirational man called Dr Ian McDowall. SFJ admits that its findings were obtained by the completion of questionnaires, which, as everyone knows, are notoriously unreliable. Many interviewees are less than entirely candid, and this level of qualitative research is often undermined by either potential conflicts of interest or poor wording of the questions themselves.

Looking back, I feel quite privileged, having been able to work with a broad range of students from various corners of the world. We spent more time together throughout that three-year period than we did with our respective families. Naturally, we came to know each other inside out. Most turned out - unlike myself - to be CSI addicts and, consequently, geared their studies towards a career in fieldwork as opposed to laboratory-based disciplines.

My own principal fascination was for Molecular Genetics, especially the methods of extracting DNA from various types of cell and subsequent analysis of its polymorphisms ('many forms'). The ingenuity underpinning this new branch of science is mind-blowing. Google the phrase 'polymerase chain reaction' and you will appreciate my point. It is, in my view, the most powerful asset of modern forensic science: that such conclusive, and highly consequential, evidence can be secured from so little physical material.

Among the Biological Sciences staff, all experts in their own fields, was a CSI and fingerprint specialist who had twenty years' experience at New Scotland Yard. The first time I met him, I thought to myself: 'I bet this guy has a staggering collection of anecdotes.' So he did. Of the ones he saw fit to share, one tickled me purple.

Once, as an inexperienced investigator, Chris had been called to a student residence following an alleged burglary. Being methodical, he began to process the scene room by room, beginning in what he believed could have been the point of entry. In a ground-floor bedroom, shattered glass from the window lay scattered across the carpet. Drawers had been upturned and clothes strewn randomly everywhere. Chris evaluated the mess and set about his work, making detailed notes and sketches and dusting surfaces for finger marks.

Only when the occupant reappeared did Chris realize that he had been wasting his time. The student stated categorically that no one had in fact entered his room. In other words, the place resembled a crime scene before the burglar had even dropped by - broken glass and all. Brilliant.

Those three years were invaluable, both professionally and personally. Word of mouth, alongside popular television shows, will ensure that interest in Forensic Science, and in particular Forensic Biology, continues to grow in the imaginations of tomorrow's aspiring scientists.

In addition to taking First Class Honours, my research was published in Bioscience Horizons, 3(2), pp. 166-178, by Oxford University Press in June of this year.

An edited version of the paper, entitled Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphisms of Mutans Streptococci in Forensic Odontological Analysis, can be found at:

Further details of Forensic Science courses at the University of Chester can be found at:

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.