DNA Analysts Adjust to Changes The Buzz


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 Most agree this term is now outdated.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 also evolved.

"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 called RFLP."

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," he says.

"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 entertaining."

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.

Links

Choosing a Career in Forensic Science
Information from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences

How DNA Evidence Works
Get the inside scoop