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On television and in the movies, forensic scientists interrogate witnesses, search crime scenes and, sometimes aided only by a microscope, uncover the one piece of evidence that can break a case wide open. In reality, however, they often spend long days in the crime lab, testing sample after sample. They frequently encounter unpleasant working conditions, in addition to facing substantial misconceptions from both the public and fellow law-enforcement professionals regarding the nature of their work.
Many forensic scientists work a traditional 40-hour week, but may also be required to be on call. They may also have to work weekends and holidays. In addition, they might work overtime if the police department has several crime scenes to cover or when investigating a mass casualty incident. While they spend most of their time in the lab, they never know when they’ll need to visit a crime scene to examine or collect evidence. The scene could range from a dirty alley to a remote wooded area, so they don't know what to expect until they enter the site.
Forensic scientists encounter potential danger every day, whether they’re visiting a crime scene or testing evidence in the lab. At the scene, they may come in contact with everything from broken glass to weapons to bodily fluids. In the lab, they may analyze blood and other biological substances that could carry disease. They may also examine trace evidence such as chemical residue that could be toxic. In both environments, they must wear gloves and other protective clothing to prevent injury and contamination. In the lab, they must ensure the room is properly ventilated and that dangerous chemicals aren’t accidentally mixed or exposed to heat or open flame.
Emotional and Physical Effects
Many of the crimes forensic scientists investigate involve violence, including murder, rape and assault. As part of their analysis, they may examine bloody clothing, study blood spatter and possibly view victims’ bodies. In some cases, the bodies might be severely decomposed. Forensic scientists, especially those specializing in crime-scene investigation, need a strong stomach and the composure to witness the aftermath of brutality and remain focused on their work. Also, the sometimes long hours can keep them away from home and cause physical and emotional fatigue.
While they sometimes face unrealistic expectations, forensic scientists also encounter intense scrutiny. Based on the portrayal of forensic science in popular culture, many people see the discipline as objective and infallible. Police, prosecutors and juries often expect definitive forensic evidence. However, forensic methods have come under question in recent years, owing to several investigations revealing inaccuracies or misconduct at forensic labs throughout the country. In addition, multiple reports have revealed that in many cases, very little forensic evidence is found and when it is, it often has minimal impact.