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Forensic science: The real world of Silent Witness

The job may not move at the fast pace TV suggests, but it does offer a wealth of job opportunities. Tim Walker reports

Thursday 06 October 2005 00:00 BST

He later dies. When a man is arrested in connection with the attack, a forensic scientist examines his car, discovering a screwdriver with microscopic traces of the victim's blood embedded between blade and handle. A second scientist, an expert in tool marks, finds that damage to the locks of the stolen car was caused by the same screwdriver. The evidence is mounting. Two more men are arrested. In one of their homes, the forensics team find a pair of boots, covered in bloodstains matching the victim's DNA profile.

One of the men denies ownership of the boots, but flakes of skin recovered from inside one of them confirm that he is lying. A set of footprints left in the snow at the scene of the crime point to a pair of trainers belonging to the third man.

Finally, DNA from skin scrapings found under the victim's fingernails are matched to the original suspect using the national DNA database. Thanks to the work of forensic scientists, all three men are convicted of the murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

This sounds, if I may be crass for a moment, like an episode of Silent Witness. But there are small differences, not least that this is a true story - the crime was committed in West Yorkshire in January 2002, and the perpetrators convicted in December of the same year. "On television, the process is portrayed as very quick," says Emma Durkin, 25, a forensic scientist specialising in toxicology. "They don't take into account how long it really takes. Also, no one forensic scientist will see the whole case, do all the different tests and report to the police officer.

"Different disciplines are overseen by different people and you rarely see the case as a whole." In this particular case, there would have been the scene-of-crime officers, experts in DNA, in tool marks, and the reporting officers, who collate the information and liaise with the police, finally appearing in court as expert witnesses. Teamwork is part of the essence of the job, and there is little room for mavericks like, say, Amanda Burton (from Silent Witness

Durkin's toxicology department, she explains, deals with "the analysis of body fluids for the presence of drugs and alcohol, for example to determine if someone was under the influence at the time of a violent incident. We also do road traffic accident work, testing to find out if someone's driving would have been impaired by alcohol or drugs."

Durkin is a junior reporting officer, meaning she writes up statements from her department for the police, and is required to give evidence in court, as she has done five times in the year since she qualified. It's not a job simply for boffins, as John Dicken, a human resources manager for the Forensic Science Service (FSS), explains. "A forensic scientist needs good communication skills. They will have to write statements, stand up in court and give evidence, and deal with being challenged by defence and prosecution lawyers. They need teamwork skills. Obviously, they need good observational skills and attention to detail."

Toiling under the aegis of the Home Office, the FSS is England and Wales' largest employer of forensic scientists (in Scotland, the responsibility falls to specific police forces, in Northern Ireland, to regional government). And the vast majority of FSS employees are working for the police force.

But there are career paths for the forensic scientist that don't involve stepping over too many dead bodies. One growth area is DNA testing, which has uses outside the criminal justice system, in private paternity testing, for example. Rhian Davies and Zoe Hall, both 23, are recent graduates of King's College London's Msc in forensic science. Both are now working in the university's drug control centre, drug testing for sports. The lab is funded by the UK Sports Council and receives samples from the Football Association and other clients.

They also drug test for the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. "I was attracted to forensics generally by the knowledge that you're making a difference - helping the police, for example," says Davies. "You can see the effects of getting results. Drugs in sport is taken very seriously. A positive result for an anabolic steroid in an athlete or footballer could end their career, so you have to do your job well and have confidence in your results."

Hall's first degree was in chemistry, which she studied at a South African university. "There are so many areas in forensics: fire, explosives, DNA and so on. Toxicology attracted me because of my interest in chemistry," she says. "Forensics is an applied analytical science. That's what's interesting - it's using science to solve problems."

Hall recommends that prospective forensic scientists take an undergraduate degree in a general science, as she did, followed by a postgraduate degree in forensics. Davies agrees. "My undergraduate degree was pharmaceutical science at Kingston University," she explains. "The impression I get is that it's preferable to have an Msc to be a forensic scientist. Some people take the less academic route of joining the police force and training there which means two years' probation as a police officer first."

In fact, whilst a postgraduate degree may be the most rigorous route into forensics, it is far from essential. Some item examiners and people in analytical testing, says John Dicken, "may just have some good scientific A levels. To rise, however, they will need to have a degree and most people do these days. The minimum requirement for a court reporting officer is a 2-2 in a relevant scientific degree."

Emma Durkin decided not to take a postgraduate degree. "I have an undergraduate degree in applied and human biology from Aston University in Birmingham," she explains. "I started as a temp in a DNA unit in Birmingham, genotyping people's DNA samples to put on the national DNA database. Then I applied to train as a forensic reporting officer in March 2003, I was one of the youngest in my training group and I did the training very quickly."

For the keenest young Quincy, there are now undergraduate degrees in forensics, too. Professor Hilary Evans is director of the school of biomolecular science at Liverpool John Moores university, which has offered a Bsc in forensic science for the past six years. "Most of our students take a sandwich year in industry, so when they graduate they're in demand," she says. "We ought to start a raffle to auction our graduates, they're so popular!"

But, she warns, "There isn't a gold standard for undergraduate forensic science degrees like other scientific disciplines. Because the degree is new, the content is not well defined from university to university.

"We teach science, but with a view to its uses in forensics. One or two institutions lack the capacity to teach science as rigorously as they should, so students should check the degree has the breadth they need."

Of course, if you're hoping to become a forensic scientist, you probably ought to get used to that sort of attention to detail.

Applying 'familial searching' to DNA samples is a new tool for catching offenders

On 19 September, a serial sex offender was jailed thanks to new advances in forensic science technology. James Ben Davies committed three violent sexual assaults on women in Hampshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire between 1998 and 2000, and without the new technique of "familial searching", developed by forensic experts in DNA testing, he may never have been caught.

Although all three offences were linked by common DNA, Davies' details were not stored on the National DNA Database, meaning he couldn't be traced. Familial searching, however, involves finding close DNA matches with that of the anonymous offender.

It works on the assumption that the criminal's close family members will have very similar DNA profiles, and may themselves be on the database. The Northampton police force hit on a number of individuals worth looking at further, and their enquiries led finally to the arrest of Davies at his home in Surrey.

The familial search was funded by the Association of Chief Police Officers after other lines of enquiry had run dry, and was central to the closure of the case.

The lowdown

Forensic science. What, like Quincy?
Not necessarily. While many forensic scientists work for the police or the Crown Prosecution Service, there are other careers in forensics from drugs testing for sport, to DNA testing in paternity cases.

Is there money in it?
Some. An individual joining the Forensic Science Service, the largest employer in the sector, as an assistant at entry level, earns around £14,000 a year. A reporting officer in training earns around £19,000, moving up to nearly £25,000 when the training ends. A senior reporting officer earns upwards of £40,000.

Training, you say?
For how long?To become a reporting officer takes 18 months. But you need at least a 2:2 in a relevant scientific degree first, and a lot of forensic scientists have postgraduate degrees in forensics, too. TW

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