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 in March 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 General Section.
Creation of the AAFS General Section
Source: John E. Gerns, MFS, AAFS Past President and General Section Retired Fellow
The General Section was created in 1966 to accommodate the At-Large membership that did not fit into the established forensic science disciplines. Since its inception in 1966, the General Section membership grew from 52 (1966) to 593 (2022). There are 61 Fellows, 52 Retired Fellows, and 57 full members accounting for 29% of the General Section. In addition, there are 328 Associate Members, 36 Trainee Affiliates, and 51 Student Affiliates. Currently, there are 17 subdisciplines within the section from accounting to veterinary services.
As the sciences advanced, new areas of forensic science established themselves as independent disciplines. This evolution resulted in new disciplines becoming established and leaving the General Section. Examples of this migration are Anthropology (1973), Odontology (1971), Engineering & Applied Sciences (1982), Digital & Multimedia Sciences (2008), and, most recently, Forensic Nursing Science (2022), which all nurtured in and emerged from the General Section of the AAFS.
The General Section members believe we are the present and future of the Academy. We have moved from "At-Large" members in 1953 to the "Gatekeepers" of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences today. It is through our section that forensic expertise is first identified, vetted, and accepted after a critical review of the forensic specialties to protect the integrity of the Academy. The ultimate goal of these new experts is to become a separate section. The Academy acknowledged in 1990 that the General Section was the "Mother of the Academy" because our section members took their responsibilities as a serious trust in establishing new forensic disciplines.
Although established in 1966, the General Section did not have Board of Director's representation until 1970. The section's first Director was John R. Hunt and he served in that capacity through 1972. He was also the General Section Chair from 1968 to 1972. Dr. Hunt returned as Chair from 1973 to 1975. His significant contributions to the General Section resulted in the creation of the John R. Hunt Award in 1970, and he was the first recipient of this distinguished award. It is the highest Award in the General Section. It recognizes sustained superior contributions to the General Section, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, and the forensic science community.
In addition to Dr. Hunt, the General Section has represented itself well in AAFS Awards. The R.B.H Gradwohl Laureate is the highest honor of the AAFS. Kenneth S. Field received this most prestigious award in 1996. The Gradwohl Medallion is conferred only to someone who has attained exceptional distinction in the advancement of the forensic sciences, who has given outstanding service to the AAFS over a prolonged period of time, and who has achieved outstanding recognition in a public position through service the forensic science profession. Mr. Field was honored as a Distinguished Fellow in 1989. Mr. Field was also the recipient of the General Section John R. Hunt Award (1983).
In addition to Mr. Field, the General Section has four Distinguished Fellows: Gil Brogdon (2000), Robert Thibault (2009), Mary Fran Ernst (2010), and Virginia Lynch (2017).
The General Section has also had two of its Fellows attain the Office of AAFS President: Mary Fran Ernst (2001-2002) and John E. Gerns (2016-2017). Their leadership made significant contributions to the AAFS.
The General Section continues to be the entrance path for new forensic science disciplines desiring membership in the AAFS. We take this responsibility very seriously to ensure only those forensic scientists whose education, experience, and expertise adhere to the admission requirements of the AAFS. We will continue to be the "Gatekeepers" of the AAFS to ensure the reputation of this prestigious organization remains stellar and respected by the forensic science community.
I would like to acknowledge the following General Section members who contributed to this article: William Andrews, Julie Howe, and Breanna Cuchara.
My Path to Joining the General Section
Source: Breanna M. Cuchara, MFS, General Section Trainee Affiliate
When I first started college, I had no idea what I wanted to do. It was either forensic psychology or criminal justice. There were just so many choices in the world of forensic science. When I was a senior, I got an internship at the New Hampshire Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME). I had no idea what to expect. I was so worried I wouldn't be able to handle it. I remember observing my first autopsy. I was amazed at how the pathologists were able to differentiate injury patterns and disease processes. I figured it out, and I decided I wanted to get into the field of death investigation and pathology. During that internship, the pathologist at the time told the interns about submitting an abstract to AAFS. I was very excited because I had just recently discovered an old case about a child (less than a year old) that died of a fentanyl overdose because a fentanyl patch was placed on him. At the time, the opioid epidemic had just begun. I got the okay to submit the paper ("The Impact of Fentanyl Use and Abuse") to AAFS. Later, I received an email — it had been accepted. This was my first-ever presentation! At the Academy conference, I had the ability to network with so many experienced individuals. I loved the diversity of the disciplines and how interesting research in forensic science truly was. During that conference, I discovered a passion for research and decided to become a member. I have been presenting at AAFS ever since.
After I graduated, I attended school in Virginia where I received my Master of Science in Forensic Science. During my time in school, I gained multiple internships at the Northern Virginia OCME (VA OCME) and District of Columbia OCME (DC OCME). While at DC OCME, I had to come up with a topic to present to the agency at the end of my internship. I later tailored this project for my graduate thesis, discussing suicides that occurred in the District of Columbia and common trends (method used, toxicology data, presence of suicide note, etc.). About a year after graduating, I finally published my thesis in the Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology. The long hours of editing paid off.
After graduation, I truly gained unique work experiences. In 2019, I started as a Forensic Autopsy Technician at the DC OCME. I then became an Opioid Fatality Review Program Specialist. While in that position, I learned how death investigation and pathology can truly have an impact on policymaking and public health within the District of Columbia. In 2022, I was awarded the opportunity to become a Forensic Investigator at DC OCME. Getting to this position has been an exciting and interesting road. I have learned so much about this field from different perspectives and I am still learning!
I am currently a member of the General Section. I believe the next big things for this section are the opportunities for collaborative efforts among agencies in different states. Having this collaboration could open doors to such areas as comparing data, standard operating procedures, and increasing the effectiveness of solving crimes/deaths. The ability to compare data and trends can increase the likelihood of helping resolve public health issues such as COVID-19, drug overdoses, suicide, etc. We have seen this in the previous meeting in Seattle, WA, in 2022 where COVID-19 had an impact on every office/discipline. Having the capability to compare operating procedures among medical examiners/coroners' offices can help standardize procedures such as mass fatality investigations, which have been on the rise lately. I foresee the General Section contributing amazing things to the wonderful world of forensic science. I am excited to continue as an active member of AAFS and develop my role as an investigator and member.
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.