Academy Aperçus—July 2022

Source: Laura C. Fulginiti, PhD, AAFS Past President

The Academy Aperçus is a monthly feature that celebrates 75 years of forensic science by spotlighting the history and anticipating the future of each section of the Academy. Beginning with the Jurisprudence Section and progressing through each section in the order of acknowledgement by the Academy, a senior member will join with a junior member to memorialize salient events, highlight members, and provide insight into why the Academy remains the premier forensic science organization in the world. This month features the Criminalistics Section.

Source:  Joseph P. Bono, MA, AAFS Past President and Criminalistics Section Fellow

As we enter our 75th year, I would like to congratulate with thanks our American Academy of Forensic Science 2022–2023 President, Dr. Laura Fulginiti for her leadership, not just during these months of her presidency, but also for her service over the past many years. She, as well as the entire Academy leadership team, including the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee, and the staff under the leadership of our current Executive Director, Donna Grogan, have worked incredibly long and challenging hours in a balancing act as our Academy continues to evolve. The current and immediate past section officers have also worked diligently to preserve and enhance what those who came before them built to promote the forensic sciences in the United States and abroad. As validated by the growing numbers of international attendees at our annual conferences, we are strong and remain the most recognized international forensic science organization in the world. For any organization to have survived 75 years, our foremothers and forefathers must have done something right. Just as importantly, those in today's leadership roles continue to do "something right" for our Academy to have grown from an initial gathering of about 25 visionaries who came together in a hotel in St. Louis, MO, in 1948 to a membership of over 6,500 worldwide. As has been mentioned in previous narratives, the history of the first 50 years of the Academy is available in a 1998 publication entitled  History of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences 1948–1998, by Mr. Kenneth S. Field. I read the narrative in its entirety for the first time just recently. I am still amazed and grateful for those and to those who came before us, recognizing with more clarity the tenacity and resolve of that small group of visionaries to "make this concept of interdisciplinary forensic science education a reality." The publication can be downloaded HERE. An updated version that includes the past 25 years will be available in time for the 2023 75th Anniversary.

The "Criminalistics Section" — It Didn't Start Out That Way

Let's take this first step, looking backward in time with a quote from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." When Scrooge was confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Past, the following exchange ensued:

"Who, and what are you?" Scrooge demanded.

"I am the Ghost of Christmas Past."

"Long Past?" inquired Scrooge: observant of its dwarfish stature.

"No. Your past."

While I am attempting to keep this narrative focused on the recent past, or what I might describe as "my generation's past,"  a few decisions from the Academy's "Long Past" are interesting to consider to understand the historical significance of those decisions by the Academy's founders in placing our current history into perspective. I will focus here on two such historical decisions related to the Criminalistics Section.

"Long Past?"

Going back to 1950, our Academy's first President and de facto founder, Dr. Rutherford B. Hayes Gradwohl appointed the Academy's first section officers.

Forensic Pathology: Dr. Milton Helpern

Forensic Psychiatry: Dr. Val Satterfield

Forensic Toxicology: Dr. Abraham Freireich

Forensic Immunology: Dr. Alexander Wiener

Jurisprudence: Professor Fred Inbau

Police Science: Professor Ralph Turner

Questioned Documents: Mr. Clark Sellers

Note that the "Criminalistics Section" is not mentioned by this title among these seven original sections. An examination of the history of the Academy reveals that in the late fall of 1954, Clemens R. Maise, Chairman of the Police Science Section put forth a petition to the Academy's Executive Committee to change the name of our section to the "Section on Criminalistics."  I can only imagine the way our members would be viewed today if that name change had not occurred, and the designation Section on Police Science had been retained. First of all, the term "Police Science" was nondescript in the 1950s and before and has become even more nondescript since. Second, the term Police Science connotes an immediate bias related to the mandated objectivity we are all required to maintain in evaluating physical evidence. Personally, throughout my career, even though I was employed until "retirement" by law enforcement organizations on the state, local, and federal levels, objectivity and credibility remained first and foremost. Those requisites were based on the physical evidence, not on who was paying my salary. Thanks to Mr. Maise for his foresight approximately 70 years ago in recognizing the importance of words and titles in describing what we do, why we do what we do, and how we do it.

During my own extended tenure in the Academy, one of the most obvious and long overdue enhancements the Academy and especially the Criminalistics Section have experienced is the achievements of women and the acknowledgment of the role women have played in the growth of our profession in general, and our section in particular. Going again back to the 1950s, the number of women in the forensic sciences was limited. Although there were a few women admitted to the Academy in those early days, two of the most notable were Mary E. Cowan, BS, admitted in 1954 and June K. Jones, MS, admitted in 1955. Ms. Cowan went on to become the first female Chair of any section in the Academy: the section she chaired was our own Criminalistics Section. Approximately 30 years ago the Criminalistics Section established an award in her name to recognize an individual who has made outstanding contributions in service to our section and to the Academy. Thank you, Mary Cowan, for what you did for those who followed in your footsteps. I can only imagine the courage you displayed dealing with the beliefs of the day, and the leadership you displayed in those early days enabling all of us to understand the importance of diversity in the growth of our profession.

"No. Your past."

The Academy has grown exponentially since I was accepted as a Provisional Member approximately 47 years ago. The Criminalistics Section of the Academy remains the section with the largest number of members, including the largest number of Fellows. One of the more interesting factors defining the "Crim" Section is the diversification in the areas of forensic expertise among our membership. Many members of "Crim" probably do not consider the fact that we have members representing a myriad of diversified forensic disciplines. These disciplines include, but are far from limited to: Forensic Drug Chemistry; Arson and Explosive Chemistry; Trace Evidence; Forensic Serology; and DNA. These forensic science disciplines represented by membership in the Criminalistics Section merely touch the surface of the types of physical evidence we are responsible for analyzing and evaluating in the laboratory. Within each of these and the other forensic disciplines represented by the Crim Section, there are numerous sub-discipline areas of expertise that require adaptations in the way questions are asked and answered, and how hypotheses are formulated. In Criminalistics, as soon as we believe we have included a fair and inclusive cross-sectional representation of the kinds of physical evidence exhibits that come through the doors of our laboratories, something unique appears the next day from a crime scene requiring an adaption of our existing methods to answer the questions posed by the criminal justice system.

About a decade ago, the theme for the 2011 AAFS Annual Meeting in Chicago was "The American Academy of Forensic Sciences — Eleven Sections; One Academy." Within the Criminalistics Section, that theme plays out every single year as we gather for our business luncheon at the annual Academy conference. We have disagreed on a lot of issues over the approximately seven decades since the formative years in the 1950s; however, even though we sometimes see forensic science and our own sub-disciplines through different prisms, in the end we have always come together, put egos aside, and moved forward with what is best for our fellow Crim Section members and, most importantly, what is best for the science in forensic science. Even with all the disagreements and heated debates and discussions over the past years, I have never witnessed anyone in the Crim Section attempt to denigrate or embarrass another Academy member in a public forum.

There are many advantages provided by the active participation in the Academy that in and of themselves set membership apart. To me the most obvious and one of the most unacknowledged benefits of coming together through the various forums available to the membership is the interdisciplinary approach to the study of forensic science. We have learned more from the differences we encounter in melding our beliefs with our colleagues than in basing our conclusions on the commonalities we share. All too often we are somewhat shortsighted in realizing that even though we are 11 different sections with 11 different approaches to the scientific method, we all share commonalities in problem-solving techniques and thought processes in addressing the ever-growing challenges we face every day.

I have always believed that one of the more important challenges we face is molding the scientific results we generate in the laboratory with the presentations we are required to formulate and the way in which we prepare scientific reports and for presentations in the courtroom. One of the more thought-provoking aspects those in the Criminalistics Section face is the reality that we are trained as natural and physical scientists in the ways we think and the ways we approach problem-solving and presenting our reports and justifying our results of analysis. And yet the measure of acceptance of what we do in our Criminalistics laboratories is determined by the way in which the results and reports are accepted and justified in the social science domain of the courtroom by those who for the most part are not trained to use the scientific method to formulate conclusions. This is the reason  over the years there have been many attempts by the leadership of the Criminalistics Section  to work with those in the Jurisprudence Section to understand the platforms, rules, and even the language we are required to use to enable the lawyers and judges to make sense of what we say and how we say what we say in our presentations. Unless we can be understood and have credibility in the courtroom, our efforts are futile.

I began this article with a quote from one of my "Long Past" favorite authors, Charles Dickens, from one of my favorite literary classics, "A Christmas Carol."  I will conclude with a quote from one of "My Past" favorite songwriters, Jerry Reed, from one of my favorite movies, "Smokey and the Bandit": We've had a "long way to go and a short time to get there" over the past 75 years. We still have a long way to go in making the forensic sciences all that they can be, especially as the American Academy of Forensic Sciences continues to evolve. This recognition is perhaps the most important step in our continuing evolution and enhancement. However, we cannot depend upon the rules of entropy for this evolution to occur. Believing that the status quo is good enough, our profession like any will follow the rules of entropy, trending toward minimum energy and maximum randomness. That's not where we want to go in Criminalistics or in any forensic science discipline. We must continuously remind ourselves that only through a retrospective evaluation of our past, and an introspective assessment of where we could be, will those who follow us 75 years from now say, "Those men and women in 2022 did something right!"


My Journey as a Forensic DNA Analyst

Sierra Kaszubinski, MS, Criminalistics Section Trainee Affiliate

As I started my undergraduate degree, pursuing a forensic science career seemed like the perfect meld of my two interests: I loved biology, but was fascinated by criminal justice coming from a first responder family. I was determined to land a position as a DNA analyst. So I immediately dove into getting my bachelors in biology, while also pursuing research. After years of working on research projects such as determining the chemical composition of tree cores, surveying fungal genetics, and genetically modifying plants, I dreamed of the day I would close my first case as a forensic scientist. However, it seemed like I was the only one convinced this was the career path for me. Professors told me I would never be able to get a job in forensics, and if I did, it wouldn't be a good fit for me.

Yet, I was determined to be a forensic scientist. After many years, I finally got my chance when I landed a service-for-scholarship contract with the Department of Defense. While they sponsored me to obtain my master's, I was guaranteed a position as a forensic DNA analyst upon graduation. My hard work was finally paying off. I was thrilled to start graduate school. After every forensic class, research project, and summer internship I completed, it felt like I was finally where I belonged.

During graduate school, I studied the postmortem microbiome, working with Academy members Eric Benbow, Jennifer PechalCarl Schmidt, and Heather Jordan. They initially introduced me to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. I have so many fond memories of presenting my research, meeting new colleagues, and the amazing projects/topics other forensic professionals were presenting. My graduate school research was presented/published in the Pathology/Biology Section, but I chose Criminalistics because that fit my future career in forensics best. I will always remember my first AAFS annual conference. I presented a poster instead of a talk because I was too nervous to speak in a room full of professionals. After a few years, I looked forward to giving talks to my colleagues and presenting my research findings. I also published my graduate school research in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, accomplishing one of my biggest professional goals to date.

With a few meetings under my belt, I decided to step up my participation in the AAFS. I have served on two committees: Diversity Outreach Committee and the Sexual Misconduct ad hoc Committee. I helped design the diversity survey, and led the subcommittee to analyze the results. I also helped put together sexual misconduct resources for the annual conferences. I am passionate about diversity efforts and supporting survivors of sexual violence. It is very fulfilling to help make the AAFS a more safe, welcoming, and inclusive place for all members. My hope for the Criminalistics section is that we can be even more involved in these efforts as a whole.

Through exposure to several topics in the AAFS and during my career as the forensic DNA analyst, I think the field of forensic DNA has so much potential for future growth. I believe members of the AAFS will lead the way on developing better statistical models for mixture deconvolution and more sensitive chemistries for low-level and degraded samples. However, I believe the most important change to forensic DNA will be transitioning to Next Generation Sequencing. NGS produces traditional short tandem repeats familiar to forensic DNA analysts. However, adapting NGS will hopefully also usher in the acceptance of unconventional evidence, like the postmortem microbiome for time-since-death estimation, into the court system.

I am excited to continue as an active participant in the AAFS. I am looking forward to serving on committees, expanding my network of forensic professionals, and being a part of the future of forensic science.


The views and opinions expressed in the articles contained in the Academy News are those of the identified authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Academy.