Beyond CSI: 10 Fascinating Forensic Careers
If you were to believe everything you saw on television about a day in the life of a forensic science professional, it would be all crime scene investigation all the time. As pulse-poundingly exciting as the investigative antics on CSI, NCIS, Dexter, and Criminal Minds may be, the day-to-day duties of forensic professionals aren’t always so cinematic. From accountants to astronomers, here are 10 lesser-known—but entirely fascinating—forensic careers.
1. FORENSIC LINGUIST
From pronunciation to word order, the patterns with which a person communicates are almost as distinct as the sound of his or her voice. Which makes them an identifiable piece of evidence in a criminal investigation, particularly in cases where fraud or plagiarism are concerned. Though the field of forensic linguistics emerged in the late 1960s, it didn’t come into popular use in the U.S. until the mid-1990s, when FBI forensic linguist James Fitzgerald convinced his employer that publishing the Unabomber's “manifesto” could possibly help them catch the man who had killed three people and injured nearly two dozen others with the homemade bombs he’d been mailing to unsuspecting victims for nearly two decades. It worked. Several people called in tips after reading the manifesto, recognizing the writing style, which eventually led them to Ted Kaczynski.
If you've been watching Discovery's Manhunt: Unabomber, you've already gotten a sense of what Fitzgerald's job entails. He's portrayed by Sam Worthington in the series, and Fitzgerald, a.k.a. "Fitz," has been impressed with the series' accuracy. "They are in the high 80 percentile [of accuracy]," Fitzgerald told Bustle, noting that "the Fitz character is a composite character." He describes the series as "a metaphorical look at my role in the Unabomber case, as well as bits and pieces of other agents who did it. It’s relatively factual. I will say, if it is about language analysis that is shown on the screen, that was me. That was the real Fitz."
2. FORENSIC OPTOMETRIST
Diagnosing astigmatism and glaucoma is all in a day’s work for an optometrist. Catching a murderer? Not so much. But Graham Strong has spent more than two decades doing just that, helping to prove the ownership of eyewear evidence left behind at crime scenes. It all started in 1989, when he assisted investigators in proving that the glasses found beneath the body of a murder victim were the same ones that their key suspect was wearing in an earlier mug shot. “I obtained more than 20 measurements that enabled me to conclude that the glasses found at the scene were identical to photographs in every way,” Strong explained of his investigative process. The evidence resulted in a first-degree murder conviction.
3. FORENSIC ANTHROPOLOGIST
If you’ve ever watched an episode of Bones, you kinda sorta know what’s in a forensic anthropologist’s job description: to help identify and investigate decayed or damaged skeletal remains. If the science in the show seems sound, that’s because (for the most part) it is: The series, which ended its 12-season run in March 2017, is based on the life, work, and writing of Kathy Reichs, who is one of only 100 forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology (she’s also a best-selling author and was one of the show’s producer).
4. FORENSIC ARCHAEOLOGIST
Part Indiana Jones and part Sherlock Holmes, forensic archaeologists work with the police and other government agencies to locate, excavate, and analyze historical evidence, from buried personal items to mass graves. Employing the same techniques they would at a dig site, forensic archaeologists help to organize a crime scene and preserve potential evidence and are being increasingly called upon by organizations such as the United Nations in genocide investigations in Rwanda, Argentina, and Bosnia.
5. FORENSIC ACCOUNTANT
Some investigators carry a gun; others wield an adding machine. Consider this: When the FBI was founded in 1908, 12 of its 34 original investigators were bank examiners. Today, about 400 of the FBI’s special agents are accountants. Forensic accountants are also found in accounting firms of varying sizes, as well as in law firms and police and government agencies, where they investigate a range of crimes that have been committed in the name of financial gain, which could include anything from murder to securities fraud.
6. FORENSIC ASTRONOMER
Not even Copernicus could have likely imagined that the field he pioneered would one day be able to aid in the delivery of legal justice. But the celestial bodies that continue to confound us regular folk have been used in much more practical ways for several centuries now, dating all the way back to Abraham Lincoln’s days as a lawyer, when he successfully defended a client against murder by being able to establish the position of the moon on the night of the altercation (which disproved the testimony of the prosecution’s key witness).
7. FORENSIC ODONTOLOGIST
In the late 1960s, there was a serial killer and rapist on the loose in Montreal who earned the nickname “The Vampire Rapist” because of the signature bite marks he left on the breasts of his victims. That vicious calling card became the undoing of Wayne Boden, the 23-year-old former model who was arrested in 1971 when Gordon Swann, a local orthodontist, was able to show 29 points of similarity between Boden’s chompers and the marks left on the body of Elizabeth Porteous, his final victim. Boden’s conviction was the first in North America to rest on odontological evidence, but certainly not the last; in 1979, forensic odontologist Richard Souviron was a key witness in the prosecution of Ted Bundy for the Chi Omega murders at Florida State University.
8. FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST
Forensic pathologists—medical doctors tasked with examining corpses to determine identity and the cause and manner of death—have found themselves in the spotlight in recent years with the popularity of reality television series like Dr. G: Medical Examiner, which followed Dr. Jan Garavaglia, Orlando’s Chief Medical Examiner, who famously identified the remains of Caylee Anthony. A decade earlier, HBO premiered Autopsy, a documentary series in which Dr. Michael Baden—the former Chief Medical Examiner of New York City—explained the science behind some of the most notorious crimes of the century, including the assassination of JFK, the death of Sid Vicious, and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson. Lesser-known Autopsy cases examined how maggots, tattoos, breast implants, and chewing gum have all helped solve crimes.
9. FORENSIC MICROSCOPIST
The most damning evidence at a crime scene is usually the kind that is impossible to see with the naked eye. Enter forensic microscopy, the science of trace evidence, which can offer valuable clues in solving a crime by examining a variety of substances such as hairs, fibers, soil, dust, building materials, paint chips, botanicals, and food. Skip Palenik has spent a lifetime using microscropy to solve real-world crimes, analyzing trace evidence in the cases of the Hillside Strangler, JonBenét Ramsey, the Unabomber, and the Green River Killer. In 1992, he founded Microtrace LLC, an independent laboratory and consultation firm focused on small particle analysis.
10. FORENSIC NURSE
Nurses are the first point of contact for many a crime victim, so it only makes sense that they would play an important role in the legal system. From collecting blood and DNA samples to counseling crime victims, the specializations of a forensic nurse can vary, as can their training. Writer-producer Serita Stevens—a forensic nurse herself—explores the field in depth in her book Forensic Nurse: The New Role of the Nurse in Law Enforcement, which notes of the job that “When the human body itself is a crime scene, [the forensic nurse] is the most critical investigator of all.”