Sunlight from one of the last warm days in November shined on the tan leather of my mom’s 2001 green Acura MDX, giving it a golden glimmer that reflected my mood and excitement for the day. My mid-length, almost black hair fluttered furiously in the wind of the open window, as Boston’s Brad Delp and I screamed at the top of our lungs, “Livin’ on rock-n-roll music, never worried ‘bout the things we were missing.” The lyrics were especially fitting, as the least of my worries were the three classes I was managing to miss. So at sixty miles per hour, Brad Delp and I went hurtling up 205 Northbound into unknown territory.
Just before reaching highway 84 I took a right on NE Glisan Street. On either side of the almost deserted two-lane road, quaint one-story houses lined the sidewalk with clean-cut, luscious green lawns and large living-room windows. I spotted the uniform black-on-white store sign reading “INTERMOUNTAIN FORENSIC LABORATORIES, INC” and clicked on my turn signal as I was passing an eerily abandoned Safeway store.
The aging engine sputtered to a stop after the liberating forty-minute journey. In one swift motion, I put the car into park, pushed the parking brake, turned off the headlights and took the keys out of the ignition – something every experienced driver has mastered. I had selected a parking spot in the shade to the right of what I thought was the front door. The brown, one-story building, partially made of brick was an L shape on its side that looked as if it previously served as an apartment building. I patted my pockets on the way out of the car to make sure I was still in possession of my two sharped yellow pencils and my folded sheet of questions in my left back pocket, and the notepad in the large middle pouch of my light grey and prized OES Lacrosse hoodie. SSHUK went the car as it’s locks descended and I trotted over to the glass-filled white frame door. I turned the cold metallic handle.
I was not quite sure if I was in the right place. My surroundings seemed surreal, compared to my expectations of a high-tech hub of communications for crime investigations. There were no tough looking, uniformed guards or transparent glass walls closing off a heated criminal interrogation. In place of the elegant furniture and decorations, sat a wide, muddy brown, woven chair with a tan cushion imprinted with a light green fern design. Around the chair were four white washed walls, almost bare except for a worn map of the United States and a window on the opposite wall to my left. Beyond the window, the quick rhythmic clicking and clacking of a keyboard echoed where the amicable, young and smiling secretary with long and curling brown hair soon poked her head out and assured me it would only be a minute or two I would have to wait. Three more identical chairs sat empty in front of the opposing walls. The chairs looked like they belonged in the waiting area of a rental car service in some tropical place, like Hawaii. Instead, they were the first objects that caught my eye here, in the antechamber of Intermountain Forensic Laboratories.
Six days before, I talked to Sally Waddle for the first time over the phone, as my last option for a contact in forensic science. I was surprised to hear her voice on the other end of the line that day, and even more surprised by how friendly and enthusiastic she sounded about answering any questions and showing me around the lab.
I recognized the memorable, friendly tone of Sally’s voice as she opened the thick wooden door, with a sign reading, ”NO SMOKING PLEASE. RESTRICTED AREA.” I matched the voice with a shorter, young lady with mid-length straight ginger-colored hair, small blue eyes, and a professional looking pair of black-rimmed glasses. Her bright white lab coat seemed to twinkle out of the corner of my eye, as I watched her eyes look down at my sullied all-white vans, and slowly rise like I was a new piece of evidence arriving at the laboratory for her to analyze. I obviously was not the formally clothed and mature interviewer she had expected either. At that moment, it occurred to me I should have taken up my mom’s advice on that haircut she so desperately begged me to get. Her grin indicated my passing the test, as then followed introductions and handshakes, and finally her inviting me to accompany her to the laboratory where she was conducting a test.
Through the bold and official-appearing door I went, venturing into unknown territory that I was exhilarated to explore. Images of crime labs in popular TV shows, such as CSI: Miami were what I pictured this lab to be like; I expected floor-to-ceiling windows with advanced computer systems being operated by attractive scientists, all in the midst of solving some obscure murder, with dramatic music playing in the background. The images swirled around in my head as the end of the hall drew nearer and the thin grey carpet past silently under my feet. I would momentarily find out again, though, the real interior of Intermountain Forensic Laboratories to be very different from my imagination, as crime lab worker James S. Wesley noted: “scientific resources on 'C.S.I.' often exceeded what's available in underfunded state and local crime labs” (Applebome 1).
The heart of the laboratory was in no way dull or in need of more flashiness. I halted in the doorway, not continuing to follow Sally over to the far right corner of the large rectangular room with low ceilings painted white. As far as I could tell, the color of the walls matched the stark white ceiling, although the long shelves full of bottles of every shape and size, mostly brown with black labels took up the vast majority of the wall space, along with a row of consecutive square windows on the opposite side of the room. There were two sinks against the far left wall, with shiny cleaning tools placed on stained rags to dry. A white metallic refrigerator stood humming to my left, covered with official looking documents I assumed pertained to the miscellaneous untested samples, that were adjacent to each other on the short wooden counters under the square windows.
The sound of Waddle’s voice startled me as I had forgotten that she wasn’t standing more than ten feet away from me, and was brought back from my trance of fascination. After a smile, she jumped right into explaining the BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) test she was conducting of a sample an attorney had recently sent. This was a pretty ordinary case for Waddle, as she explained that no fieldwork is done by any of their lab workers, and that “regularly you get the evidence all packaged up for you.” Since Intermountain Forensics is a small private lab, Waddle said, “we generally work for the defense” in court cases, and do tests of any kind they assign us. She also added that much of this work is simply double checking previously conducted tests, which is one way that real forensics are significantly different that what TV shows portray.
The BAC testing machine was only one of the many miscellaneous pieces of equipment the lab owned. Intricate apparatuses of every shape, size, and color imaginable sat in open areas of counter space all over the room. The numerous quantity and wide variety of machinery was mostly due to the diversity of cases the lab takes on, Waddle said, while pointing out a small grey box-like device with a meter like a speedometer, black knobs, and a test tube slot, called a spectrometer, used to measure “the amount of visible light absorbed by a colored solution” (“Chemlab”).
Many tests could run simultaneously, Waddle said, because of the amount of time that each of them could take. A court case they assist could last anywhere from “a week to three or four years,” depending on the “nature of the case.” The patience required in forensic science, Waddle said, is not portrayed accurately in TV shows like Law and Order; finding evidence, running tests, and matching it to a suspect could never be done all in one day. Also, real forensic lab work is more of a “coordinated effort,” as Sally put it, contrasting from many popular criminal investigations show’s depiction of only one or two scientists solving the entire case.
After getting a good look at all of the complex machines, Sally’s elucidation on the work done at Intermountain Forensics took us back down the hall, past the door to the antechamber, and into a small square room on the left side, taken up mostly by a large table set up with photography equipment. This room, Waddle said, was dedicated mostly towards photography, which she emphasized as being a vital part of forensic science. The room also served as the ballistics lab. The drawn shades of large windows on the far side of the room gave the room an eerie feel, enriched by the dark paint color. More shelves filled with labeled bullet containers and camera mechanisms lined the left-side wall, leaving the other two completely bare. All of the fancy, organized equipment and Waddle’s clear intelligence made me feel the criminals of Portland stood no chance.
* * *
If you have ever watched an episode of CSI, you probably know that fingerprints almost always turn out to be a huge factor in the solution to the crimes; according to writer Diana Gurdoglanyan, fingerprints are practically “blessings to investigators,” due to their accuracy (Gurdoglanyan). Fingerprinting has actually become such a vital part of investigations, that Waddle described it as more of a “subspecialty.” The meticulous nature of finger printing requires “careful precautions” (Gurdoglanyan) at the crime scene, and work that must be “enduringly saved with precision” at the lab (Gurdoglanyan). New technology has also been developed, though Waddle later explained it is not available at Intermountain Forensic Laboratories, so they leave that work to “technicians for the police department” who specialize in fingerprinting. The lab’s not owning fingerprinting equipment had surprised me, yet made perfect sense I thought, as I followed her back down the hall to a new area of the laboratory.
The third room Waddle took me to was one with a shimmery white vinyl floor, covered with a black, grey, and white splotted design. There was just enough space for us to fit comfortably in between more shelves of labeled bottles, and a large white machine that looked to me like a clothes dryer. This however, was the serology room, dedicated to studying fluids with the dryer-like machine by placing tubes of fluids of some kind in the slot located in the center of the presented side. At this point in our very nicely flowing conversation, Waddle was talking about the scientists employed at Intermountain Forensics, to which she said that “most people who work here have a biology or a chem degree.” This aspect of Intermountain Forensics is especially different than what many crime investigation TV shows portray; the tremendously large variety of cases depicted in the CSI: Miami lab is not very realistic at all. There are “lots of actual repeats in lab work” and although Waddle “tends not to watch those shows,” the way they display a “new method of getting evidence every time” is highly unrealistic, as are the car chases, arrests, and gun fights.
The fictional modes of finding and analyzing evidence not only wrongly display a forensic scientist’s work, but can also have subtle effects, some positive and some negative. In her article, Kimberlianne Podlas states that “research shows that some televised depictions of law enforcement can influence some people’s beliefs about the legal system” (Podlas 87). Interestingly enough, the Director of the Forensic Science Initiative at West Virginia University, Max M. Houck, similarly describes something called the ‘CSI Effect’ - the image that all crimes have easy evidence to find and are solved within days ending in a confession. TV somehow always manages to portray the whole process in under 55 minutes. The image of the ease in solving crimes “has led jurors to have unreasonable expectations for the quality and quantity of physical evidence” (Houck 86). The skewed perception can also work in other ways, as in educating criminals on how to clean up a crime and take away or destroy evidence that they otherwise would have left (“TV versus Reality”).
This media has proven to have positive impacts on the forensic science industry; Houck credits the recent popularity in CSI-type shows to the new “explosion of interest in forensics evidence on college campuses” (Houck 86). Figures like Horatio Caine, leader of CSI: Miami reality TV team, act as tremendous inspiration for aspiring forensic scientists. Blogger Susan Isaac expresses his inspiring abilities very clearly by admiring “the sweet genius that is every word that falls from the lips of David Caruso’s character, Horatio Caine” (“God Bless”). Newly educated and exhilarated professionals suggest a promising future for forensic science.
* * *
As a sluggish printer spat out the last graph of Waddle’s BAC test, I realized that quite a few questions still remained unanswered on the folded sheet that was likely now imprinted on my bottom. Waddle scooped up the graph and politely asked me if there was anything else I would like to know, motioning towards a doorway across the laboratory to the right of the sinks.
On other side of the doorway was Waddle’s office, complete with an L shaped wooden desk, a squeaky but comfortable-looking black roller chair, and an HP desktop computer surrounded by impressive stacks of papers and documents taking up almost all the space at the desk. I found a clear spot, though, at the left corner where I pulled up an old wooden chair, looking like it belonged in the dusty attic of a grandparent’s house. Waddle took her seat on the roller chair across from me and intently answered all of the remaining questions I had for her.
My personal interest was especially perked as she spoke about the achievements necessary in being cleared to become a forensic scientist, which are no easy feat as, “Most employers provide additional education or training for new employees with bachelor’s degrees” (Dillon 7). These numerous years of training take hard focus and great dedication to paying close attention to detail. Sally elaborated on this point, staring at the ceiling as she did so, emphasizing the tremendous importance in doing lab experiments and gaining great experience, which helps exponentially more than any special forensic class ever could. Her furrowed brow and expression of remembrance on her face indicated that this advice came from personal experience. The new competitiveness in forensics is best described by the recent “explosion of interest” (86) in the profession, as Max M. Houck put it, which makes finding a job much more difficult than it has ever been before. For this reason, Sally recommends any person aspiring to become a forensic scientist to get an education in a “broad base of college classes” rather than just a forensic course. Laboratories will be much more likely to hire if you have experience and a good understanding of science in general.
Jobs in forensics exist everywhere in the country, but if you are local, Waddle suggests you look in Washington, rather than Oregon, for Waddle commented that “Oregon does not have a good system,” and Washington’s is much better because of the way it was developed. She said, that for some reason, Oregon’s state forensic system “was formed from a law enforcement point of view, rather than a scientific point of view.”
The cartoon below demonstrates Waddle’s opinion of the contrast between Oregon’s and Washington’s systems.
(Washington on the left, Oregon on the right) (McShane)
* * *
In the attic of an old police department in Lyons, France, the very first forensic laboratory came into existence in 1910, through the work of a man named Edmond Locard (1877-1966), also known as the “Father of the Crime Lab” (Saferstein 21). Locard is best known for his famous Exchange Principle, which according to blogger Fred Connors, basically states "It is impossible for a criminal to act, especially considering the intensity of a crime, without leaving traces of his presence” (Connors). Forensic studies expanded greatly from the early twentieth century and on, and most notably were developed by J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI in the 1930’s until the late 1970’s (Saferstein 23) (Hack). His development and organization of “a national laboratory to offer forensic services to all law enforcement agencies in the U.S.” (Saferstein 23) was a turning point for the profession in the United States.
However, J. Edgar Hoover’s innovations of crime investigation have left a sinister tone on forensics, as his personal cultivation of the logistics and image of the FBI were shaped entirely to his advantage (Hack). The power that Hoover attained during his almost fifty-year reign as the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was frighteningly immense, and as writer Richard Hack adds, was possible because “He certainly knew how to keep a secret, which was really the key to his success. Not only did he know the secrets, but nobody knew which secrets he knew” (Hack). Hoover’s control was so enormous that he virtually, “kept the keys to a kingdom called Washington,” which is an endowment the government will never bestow on a man again (Hack). Hoover’s power ranged as far as Hollywood, as Hack claims “the studios followed Hoover's orders of how crime and punishment should be portrayed” (Hack). Hoover was quoted telling an actor whom he narrowly approved for a film to “Get killed by the end, make sure you're dead because I don’t want to see any crooks living” (Hack). Common modern shows like CSI: Miami maintain the same values Hoover demanded the film industry follow, and now influence viewers on their image of crime investigation. Although Hoover may have abused his power for personal pleasure, the image and legacy he left on forensics is remarkable.
* * *
As Waddle and I stood up and shook hands one last time over the enormous stacks of paper on her desk, her hand felt firmer in mine, more reliable.
The interest that Waddle has for science, and the fact that she knows she’ll be doing something different than the previous day is what keeps Waddle coming to work each morning. Her love for forensics stems from her studies of sciences, which she has enjoyed all her life. Waddle savors the excitement of being able to put science into an “interesting application,” that not only benefits others, but works towards justice and peace. It is a beautiful feeling that I had my first taste of during my tour of the laboratory.
As I turned the opposite end of the cold metallic handle on the glass-filled white frame door, I was struck by how awe-inspiring Waddle was, and is. She is a person with overlapping talents and passions in science, who wakes up every morning to valorously solve criminal investigations. Her excitement of being a vital part of solving cases does not need to be exaggerated through television. The real heroes and true thrills of forensic science lie just beyond the bold, thick, wooden, official appearing door of Intermountain Forensic Laboratories.
Applebome, Peter. "With Sexier TV Image, Forensic Science Reaps Rewards in Popularity." search.proquest.com. The New York Times, 6 Oct. 2004. Web. 5 Dec. 2012.
Connors, Fred. "Locard's Exchange Principle." Ohio Valley Cold Cases. blogspot.com. 15 Jan. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
Dillon, Hall. "Forensic: A Career In." www.bls.gov. Occupational Outlook Quarterly, 2001. Web. 9 Nov 2012.
Gurdoglanyan, Diana. "Fingerprints used in Forensic Investigations." Forensic Biology (2001): N.p. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
Hack, Richard. Interview by John Hockenberry. The secrets of J. Edgar Hoover. Dateline NBC, 4 Dec. 2004. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
Houck, Max M. “Attorney, investigators, and educators have felt the impact of television’s popular forensics programs: CSI: Reality. mcdb.ucla.edu. Jul. 2006. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
Isaacs, Susan. “God Bless Horatio Caine.” I Am Paragon. N.p., 2001. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
McShane, Justin J. “Is forensic science truly scientific?” Cartoon. The McShane Firm. 11 Sep. 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
Podlas, Kimberlianne. "Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review." Loyola of Los Angeles Entertainment Law Review. (2006): 87-125. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
Saferstein. "Criminalistics: An Introduction to Forensic Science." New Jersey State Police Lab, Widener University. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.
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TV Versus Reality. Investigation Discovery. investigation.discovery.com, 2012. Web. 12 Nov 2012.
Waddle, Sally. Personal interview. 7 Nov. 2012