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Genetics and Race:
Current Research and Societal Impact

Careers in Science From the Field

Brent Myers is the Biochemistry Section Supervisor and a forensic biologist in the Department of Serology at the West Virginia State Police Crime Laboratory. In addition, he is West Virginia's administrator of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). Lieutenant Myers graduated from Marshall University with a BS in chemistry
and zoology, as well as a MS in forensic biology.

What is your profession?

I am a forensic biologist. Forensic biology involves the identification and individualization of biological evidence obtained by investigators, usually from crime scenes. Since DNA can be found in many of the cells of the human body, we can identify the source of a variety of biological evidence including, but not limited to, blood, semen, sweat, hair tissue bone and saliva.

What are the responsibilities of your position?

The responsibilities of a forensic biologist involve the collection, identification and individualization of biological evidence from the individuals and locations associated with a crime, which aid investigators in determining what occurred and who may be involved with a particular crime. If a defendant goes to trial, the forensic biologist will explain to the judge and jury, through questions from the prosecutor and defense attorney, the opinions he developed concerning the results of his tests.

Can you describe a typical week in your position?

A typical week usually involves working in the laboratory processing pieces of evidence. A significant amount of time is spent documenting all the actions performed when working on a case. A report will be generated from cases that have been completed detailing the results of the tests and the conclusions reached by the analyst. Current journal articles may be reviewed concerning new technologies and ideas that may be applicable to the laboratory. Telephone conversations with investigators, prosecutors or defense lawyers occur on a regular basis concerning particular cases or general questions about some aspect of forensic biology.

What part of this job do you personally find most satisfying? Most challenging?

The most satisfying part of my job is exonerating individuals who have been arrested or suspected of crimes they did not commit. I also enjoy obtaining probative results from evidence that was considered difficult or unlikely to yield results.

What is the greatest benefit of working in this field?

The greatest benefit of working in this field is to be involved with science and know that you are helping society by playing an important role in the legal process.

What are the biggest challenges facing your field?

The biggest challenge to forensics in general, and especially forensic biology, is the large backlog of cases to be worked. Many laboratories lack the money to provide the additional staff, equipment or space to address this challenge.

What are the skills that are most important for a position in this field?

The most important skills can be divided into two groups. The first group of skills involve those which apply to the laboratory setting. An individual must be methodical, have good laboratory technique and an analytical mind. The second group of skills an individual must possess include verbal skills which will allow them to express their opinions in a clear and concise manner even under hostile questioning. The individual must also deal with the investigators and lawyers involved in his cases in a professional manner.

What kind of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage someone to gain if s/he is interested in pursuing a career in this field?

The best type of experience is to be an intern in a laboratory. An individual should be exposed to all aspects of the forensic lab and may be able to better assess which area of forensics best suits them or even if forensics is the right field.

What type of education background is required?

The level of education required in forensic biology depends on whether the individual is interested in basic serology (fluid identification), DNA analysis or being a technical leader. Basic serology requires at least a high school degree with a college degree preferred. The DNA analyst requires a degree in the biological sciences, chemistry or forensic science with course work in genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology and statistics. The technical leader requires a masters in forensics or a related field with at least some of the previously described classes at graduate level.

What are the typical entry-level job titles and functions? What entry-level jobs are best for learning as much as possible?

Entry level jobs differ from state to state. Some labs may have lab assistants whose function is to make buffers, clean the lab and provide whatever assistance to the analysts that is required and within their job description. Some laboratories have entry level positions called trainees, which are for those individuals who are receiving their initial training from a more experienced analyst.

What are the salary ranges for various levels in this field? Is there a salary ceiling?

The salaries vary a great deal from state to state, and from the level of experience and responsibility the job requires. As most forensic biology is performed in government labs, there is a limit to the salaries that can be offered. However, there are also private labs, which may pay more.

What special advice do you have for a student seeking to qualify for this position?

The best advice I can give to an individual interested in this field is to remember that many labs require polygraphs, background checks or both, and that each student must realize that every action can have consequences. If an individual has a history of drug use, excessive drinking or petty crimes, they may not be hired even if their education background is suitable.

Submitted by: Silvia Hou, 2003 Summer Intern