Forensic Scientist

Dr. Gail Anderson received a BSc in zoology from Manchester University and a MSc and PhD in pest management from Simon Fraser University. Today, Dr. Anderson is an associate professor in the criminology department at Simon Fraser. She is one of only three forensic entomologists in Canada. She actively handles forensic death cases, particularly homicide cases, for the B.C. Coroner's Service, the RCMP and city police, using insects to determine elapsed time since death, information frequently vital to the successful resolution of murder cases. Dr. Anderson’s work has been featured on several television programs, including Journeys, Forbidden Places and The Nature of Things.

Grace: How would you advise a person who wants to get started in a career in forensic science? What kind of education is required?
Dr. Anderson:
Forensic science is the application of science to law. Therefore, in order to be a forensic scientist, you must first be a scientist and have a strong grounding in your field of science. Forensic scientists usually have a minimum of a four-year science degree with honours. For instance, a forensic biologist will have a BSc (Hon) in biology, biochemistry, molecular biology or a similar field. A forensic chemist will have a BSc (Hon) in chemistry, and a forensic toxicologist will usually have a BSc (Hon) in pharmacy or biochemistry. Many scientists in the forensic lab have higher qualifications. Once accepted into the forensic lab, you will undergo an understudy period of 9 to 18 months, depending on the area you are in. Ongoing training continues throughout the career.

Grace: Are forensic scientists similar to CSIs (crime scene investigators)?
Dr. Anderson:
No. Forensic scientists are not CSIs. CSIs are police officers who examine the crime scene and collect evidence to be taken to a crime (forensic) lab. These police officers are usually called identification officers or ident officers. Forensic scientists work in the crime lab; they are civilians, not police officers. Forensic scientists analyze the evidence collected by the ident officers and then submit reports giving their opinion of the weight of the evidence. They also often testify in court as expert witnesses.

Grace: What are some of the different areas that forensic scientists can specialize in?
Dr. Anderson:
There are many areas that forensic scientists work in. Forensic scientists who work in crime labs can specialize in one of several areas: forensic biology, forensic chemistry, forensic toxicology, questioned documents examination, and firearms and tool mark examination.

There are also many other scientists such as myself who are involved in forensic science but are not employed full-time by the police. For example, when the police need to identify a person using dental records, they bring the teeth to a forensic odontologist. This person must be a certified expert who would be able to testify in a court of law, if the need arose.

My specialty is in forensic entomology, which is the use of insects to aid death investigations. If you want to learn more about the different areas in forensic science and the career options, check out this page:

Grace: What education background is required to become a forensic entomologist? What education background do you have?
Dr. Anderson:
To become a forensic entomologist, a BSc (Hon) in biology, zoology or entomology plus a master’s degree in entomology are usually the minimum requirements. Most practicing entomologists also have a PhD in entomology and are Board Certified. I have a BSc (Hon) in zoology and a master’s and PhD in pest management.

Grace: What sorts of clues can you derive from insects?
Dr. Anderson:
Examining the insects involved in decomposing the body can help me determine how long the person has been dead. Insect evidence may also show that the body has been moved to a second site after death, or that the body has been disturbed at some time, either by animals, or by the killer returning to the scene of the crime.

Grace: How many cases do you work on each year? Has there ever been a case you couldn't help solve?
Dr. Anderson:
I work on about 10-20 cases a year. There are cases that go unsolved, such as old cases where the evidence is gone. There are also cases where the evidence has been improperly collected at the crime scene. When this happens, the evidence cannot be used in a court of law because of concerns about contamination.

Grace: From your perspective, what are some of the good things about being a forensic specialist and what is the downside of this career?
Dr. Anderson:
The good things are being able to help the victims’ families find closure and being able to help the police solve crimes. The downside: giving evidence in court can be stressful, and spending hours in the lab examining and analyzing evidence is tedious work. You have to be very patient and meticulous. Some cases can also be emotionally difficult to work on; you learn to deal with it by thinking that you are there to do a job and to help the victims’ families by hopefully getting the person who committed the crime.

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