The science of solving crime
Ellie Salmon’s biology degree from the University of New Brunswick has helped her land a career as a forensic scientist in sunny California.
The 1998 bachelor of science graduate used her degree as a springboard to take a master of science in forensic science degree from George Washington University in Washington, DC.
She is currently the DNA Technical Leader in a private lab in San Francisco, CA.
“It’s a full service laboratory, so we have all the service offerings,” she says. “Firearms, toxicology, pathology, DNA testing, trace analysis, fingerprints.
“I do primarily DNA testing. My job involves identification of body fluids and DNA testing on samples.”
Ellie usually meets with attorneys and police officers to collect the necessary evidence that may have come in contact with body fluids, and performs tests with DNA from the nucleus of the fluids’ cells.
“If we get a DNA profile from the evidence item, we will compare it to any known samples that they submit from victims or suspects, and try to match the profiles. If there are no known suspects, then our DNA profile can be uploaded into the national database to search for any suspects or convicted felons that are in the database.”
Breaking down problems
While she doesn’t spend much time in the field, Ellie does spend much of her time interacting with clients, brainstorming the best analyses to perform based on the evidence available.
“My favourite part is sitting down with the detectives and just walking through their case, trying to figure out what questions they want answered, and the best forensic pieces of evidence to look at to answer those questions. Often, they might not be thinking about the full spectra of forensics.”
Clients may come in asking for a DNA analysis, but Ellie works through the case with them to see if they might actually benefit most from examining fingerprints or firearms.
“It’s a lot of problem solving and brainstorming, using your knowledge and skills,” she says. “They’re usually pretty pleased to hear all these different ideas.”
Ellie loves her job, but says that life in a forensics lab isn’t nearly as fast-paced as television shows make it sound.
“They call it the CSI effect,” she explains. “Some attorneys are complaining about it, because jurors are under the impression that you can get DNA from anything and run a test in an hour. If you have a sample that you don’t get a result from, they think it’s odd.
“On CSI, they’re out there with guns and interviewing suspects, but that’s just never the case for us. We do testify, so the show is accurate to some extent.”
Testament of knowledge
Studying at UNB, both in Saint John and Fredericton, gave Ellie the baseline knowledge she needed to become a forensic scientist.
“The classes were always very thorough and the teachers were very approachable, so I felt that I had a really good, solid knowledge of the basic science principles. The lab work really came in handy as well. Once you get to grad school, it’s assumed that you know certain things.
“I felt well prepared for the classes I took in grad school and when I started my job.”
Ellie needs to state her qualifications when testifying in front of a courtroom after examining evidence – which means every single time, “I am giving free advertising to UNB,” she jokes.