About Forensic Science

About Forensic Science

Forensic science is the application of the natural sciences to matters of legal concern. Forensic scientists work on both civil and criminal cases and because the application of forensic science spans a broad spectrum of scientific knowledge, most are specialists in a particular area of science or technology. Some of these specialties include anthropology, criminalistics, engineering, molecular biology, pathology, toxicology, and other areas. Scientific problem solving is a key component unifying all of these areas.

A solid foundation in the physical and biological sciences is necessary in the education of the prospective forensic scientist. A working knowledge of the law is also necessary as forensic science, by definition, requires an ongoing interaction with the legal system. Forensic scientists are scientists first and must be able to use their knowledge of science to analyze the evidence in question, but they must also be able to explain their results in simple language to judges, lawyers and juries. Communication skills are important because a misunderstanding in communicating an expert opinion can have dramatic consequences and affect a defendant’s life and liberty.

While most scientists are careful to maintain the scientific integrity of their samples during experimentation, forensic scientists must also be concerned with the legal integrity of the physical evidence that they work with. In addition to ensuring that the analysis of the evidence was done to ensure an accurate result, the forensic scientist must also ensure that the evidence is properly handled and must carefully document the transfer, storage, analysis and final disposition of all physical evidence in order for it to be admissible as evidence in a court of law.

The forensic science program at John Jay College provides a solid educational foundation in the theory and techniques necessary to master the laboratory sciences, field investigation and expert testimony requirements of a successful graduate. At the undergraduate level, students begin the major in their freshman year, learning chemistry, biology and calculus and proceed to advanced science courses in their sophomore and junior years. In the junior year, undergraduates begin focusing in one of three specialization tracks as well as learning to apply their knowledge in an undergraduate research project or external laboratory internship. At the master’s level, students build on their undergraduate training in science by focusing in one of the three areas of specialization. All graduate students are required to complete research with a faculty member and produce a master’s thesis. All students in the program are encouraged to solve scientific problems by researching theoretical concepts and experimenting with different techniques to gain a better understanding of when and how various techniques should be applied.

The forensic science program at John Jay College offers specialization in criminalistics, molecular biology, and toxicology. Mastery in these specialties requires expertise in the areas of chemistry, biology, physics, and many other areas of scientific and mathematical knowledge.

Criminalistics involves the recognition, identification, individualization, and evaluation of physical evidence. The criminalist uses this information to reconstruct the events leading up to and during the commission of a crime. Any type of material can become physical evidence, but criminalists typically analyze evidence such as fingerprints, hairs, fibers, physiological fluid stains, bloodstain patterns, and firearms evidence. A criminalist may identify trace evidence to connect a suspect to a victim or crime scene or may analyze a blood-spatter pattern to determine the position of a shooting victim and the assailant.

Molecular biology applied to forensic science focuses on obtaining and comparing DNA profiles from biological evidence. These analyses have provided an important tool in the investigation of many types of crimes, including homicide, sexual assault and burglary. Matching the DNA profile from a bloodstain at a crime scene to a known suspect can be compelling evidence of guilt. Forensic DNA analysis is also the major tool used to exonerate convicted felons of crimes which they did not commit. Since biological evidence can come in many forms, from the skin cells left behind from touching an object to the biological fluid stains collected from a sexual assault scene, forensic molecular biologists have at hand a variety of techniques which can be used to extract DNA from a range of different sample types.

Toxicology involves the investigation of poisoning incidents and the analysis of samples for the presence of drugs and toxic substances. Toxicology samples are routinely collected in a variety of situations, including urine testing of athletes, drug testing of hair from applicants to law enforcement agencies, suspected cases of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and from autopsy subjects. Toxicologists must be knowledgeable about the metabolism of various drugs and poisons in the human body and be able to identify and quantify the drug or poison in question.

The major in forensic science is designed to provide training for students seeking to work in forensic science laboratories, or who are planning to pursue careers as scientists or scientist-administrators. The program offers a solid educational foundation in the theory and techniques necessary to master the laboratory sciences, field investigation, and expert testimony. Students from the program have moved on to positions as federal and state investigators, crime laboratory specialists, medical examiners, and pharmaceutical scientists. In addition, our graduates are highly competitive in science and medical graduate programs.