Forensic chemistry is a field of chemistry dedicated to the analysis of various substances that might be important or might have been used in the commission of a crime. A forensic chemist might also evaluate substances that could prove dangerous to others. For example, a powder sent in the mail that looks like it could be anthrax would be analyzed by this chemistry professional. Though in the past, many people who worked in this field had general bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and minors in criminal studies, today, many universities now offer specific degrees in forensic chemistry.
Viewers of television programs like CSI have seen depictions of forensic chemistry. These chemists don’t only microscopically examine and identify blood or tissue matter, but also a variety of substances. For instance, if crime scene investigators believe that someone has been drugged, a chemists might look through all materials taken from a crime scene to try to determine the presence of specific drugs. In fact, even in a drug bust, where a person is carrying a small or large amount of a controlled substance, any apparent drugs taken as evidence must be verified by a chemist by looking at their chemical compounds. Alternately, this professional might evaluate various samples of fibers, such as from clothing or carpet, to attempt to identify someone’s presence at a crime scene.
Though many people in this field work in chemistry labs only, some do work in the field collecting evidence. Knowledge of physics could take a forensic chemist to a crime scene to look at blood patterns to determine how accidental or intentional injury occurred. These chemists may work at scenes where explosions or fires have occurred, to try to determine what happened. As much as they may be evaluating a scene to decide if a crime took place, they might be able to rule out malicious intent through examining patterns of fire and looking for certain chemicals associated with bomb making or arson.
Forensic chemists are trained in organic chemistry so that they can run analysis on blood and other body samples to identify DNA, and to run toxicology screens. They, therefore, look at matter from the chemist’s point of view to glean greater information about a substance, person, or crime, for a variety of reasons.
People who earn degrees in forensic chemistry may work at private labs, local police departments, coroner’s offices, fire departments, with bomb squads, in the military, or at national agencies like the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Some are specialists in certain kinds of identification — forensic chemists might become experts on chemicals associated with explosives, for instance. At minimum, those in the field have bachelor’s degrees, but those who want to teach or develop new investigatory techniques may have master’s degrees or PhDs.