DNA analysis has changed considerably from what it was just 10 years
ago. And as analysts adjust to the changes, they also find themselves trying
to dispel the myths that television has generated about the field.
People who do this work used to be known as forensic serologists. Most
agree this term is now outdated. That's because it deals only with blood.
The preferred terms now are forensic biologist or DNA analyst.
More than the name has changed over the years. The job description has
"The overall process of DNA analysis is faster than the techniques available
10 to 15 years ago," says Don Wycoff. He is a laboratory manager in Idaho.
"Now we have databases that link suspects to old crimes. Overall, the
techniques provide greater discrimination and we can work with smaller samples."
Ronald Singer is a crime lab director in Texas and the current president
of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. He agrees that the science
has come a long way.
"Twenty years ago, no one was looking for DNA in forensic cases. Ten years
ago, the commonly accepted method of obtaining a DNA profile was a method
RFLP stands for Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism. Singer says
that technique was not as sensitive or accurate as the techniques available
today. It also required a larger sample for analysis.
Today, he says, technology has made it possible to narrow down the "search"
and zero in on one individual.
Stefano Mazzega is with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Forensic Laboratory
Services. He says technology can also be thanked for cementing the need for
forensic analysts -- now and in the future.
"The technology has raised the sensitivity, discrimination and quality
of the results," he says.
"This has had the effect of shifting the focus of investigations and furthered
the reliance of the courts on DNA findings. This progress has also impacted
on the ability to re-analyze previously unsolved cases."
And as a result, the demand for these services has grown.
Since he's been working in the field, Mazzega says he's worked with three
new DNA technologies, each more sensitive, more progressive and faster than
the last. "This trend will continue and will bring with it long-term job opportunities."
But students need to understand that DNA analysis is nothing like it appears
to be on shows like CSI. Topping the list of misconceptions is the power
of technology -- or rather the superpowers of technology.
"The entertainment media tends to portray forensic science as more advanced
than it actually is," says Singer. "There are 'instruments' that can do virtually
anything with any type of sample."
Gene N. Gietzen is a forensic scientist in Missouri. He says one of the
biggest myths is that cases are solved in real life as quickly as they are
on television -- in other words, in neat, one-hour packages. "DNA analysis,
while much faster than 10 or even 20 years ago, takes more time than one hour,"
"One cannot realistically get any idea or real sense of a position in the
forensic sciences through watching TV shows. TV shows are for entertainment,
and working in just about any position, including DNA analysis, is not always
The other TV-perpetuated misconception is that although there's often an
entire team working on the case on screen, the case is usually assembled,
dissected, studied and promptly solved by one person (the lead actor).
In reality, cases are solved over a longer period of time, thanks to the
efforts of several people.
"It's a myth that forensic scientists are all-knowing generalists that
concurrently maintain expertise in such diverse fields as forensic entomology,
pharmacokinetics and DNA," says Mazzega.
"Nothing could be further from the truth. The successes in forensic science
are directly attributable to increasing degrees of specialization and teamwork."
Singer echoes that need for teamwork. "As enthusiastic as we may be about
what we do, we do not carry a case from start to finish. Our job is usually
very specialized, and represents only a small portion of the entire process."
But a science specialty isn't all you need. According to Wyckoff, the successful
scientist is also an excellent writer and communicator.
"One of the biggest deficits that I see with new applicants is their inability
to communicate well, both verbally and in writing," he says.
Singer says those communication skills are often pressed into practice
not only in the lab, but in the courtroom as well.
"You need to be able to convince a jury that you actually do know what
you're talking about and that you understand the science that underlies your
conclusions. But you have to do it in a way that they will understand without
feeling like they're being talked down to," he says.
In high school, your focus should be on science and math, says Singer.
"But don't neglect the basic language skills."
Beyond high school, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree in biology,
physics, chemistry or biochemistry. Work in a lab is highly recommended.
Choosing a Career in Forensic Science
Information from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences
How DNA Evidence Works
Get the inside scoop