Motivated by crime dramas like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, students – particularly females – are flocking to study forensic science. The curriculum is challenging, jobs are few in Switzerland, and hours are irregular. So what’s the draw?
Down several steep staircases, deep in the bowels of an old grey building in the Swiss capital, lie the offices of the University of Bern’s Department of Forensic Physics/Ballistics, headed by Beat Kneubuehl, one of Europe’s foremost experts on gun injuries.
Two young members of the five-member research team sit at computers by a large window. A small back room is half-filled by a plastic box hanging from a swinging metal frame and filled with cellulose. Most recently, it was used to measure the energy produced by a can of pepper spray.
Kneubuehl, a mathematician who came to forensics after 33 years as a senior scientist in the Swiss Army’s ballistics lab, has made a career out of experimenting with the forces of nature. It’s not a dull profession. “Every case is different,” he says.
What Kneubuehl and his co-workers practise is not crime scene investigation but rather “crime scene interpretation”, he clarifies.
“We see the clues, and the clues immediately set us off. ‘What happened? Where did the drops of blood fly?’ We try to reconstruct the dynamics of a process.”
What is forensic science used for?
The short answer: a lot.
The Forensic Genetics department at the University of Zurich is looking into whether there are genetic factors in the alcohol tolerance of teenage ‘coma drinkers’, and was called on to identify the 400-year-old skeleton of Jörg Jenatsch, a Swiss freedom fighter who lived from 1596–1639.
Researchers from the Institute of Radiation Physics at Lausanne’s university hospital were invited in August 2012 to take part in the evaluation of the exhumed remains of former Palestine President Yasser Arafat, to determine whether he was poisoned with radioactive polonium.
The University of Bern’s Department of Forensic Physics/Ballistics was called on to evaluate evidence in the shooting of a British family in their car in the French Alps in September 2012.
And in early 2012, forensic scientists were kept busy determining whether the meat in frozen lasagne and other products sold in Europe came from cows (as claimed in the product packaging) or horses.end of infobox
Last year 89 students began the bachelor of forensic sciences programme at the University of Lausanne, which calls itself the world’s first academic scientific police school and one of the only institutions in Europe to offer a basic education in forensics.
Enrolment there reached a high point in 2005 and 2006, with 118 students (in 2005 six of the top ten television shows in the United States were crime dramas).
A career in forensics appeals to people “interested in understanding how human bodies work and don’t work”, says Susanne Keuneke, a researcher in the Institute for Social Sciences, Communication and Media Studies at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, in Germany.
Keuneke and two co-workers studied whether TV programmes like CSI influenced German students interested in studying forensics. They found that the series appealed to students who already had an interest in medicine, and that their knowledge of forensics was “not 100 per cent right, but realistic”.
Of the 27 people interviewed, 24 were women. Keuneke isn’t sure why.
“It corresponded with other research that showed that when professions are shown on TV, typically more women than men show their interest,” she told swissinfo.ch.
There is also a high proportion of women interested in forensics in Switzerland.
Roughly two-thirds of Lausanne’s new bachelor’s degree students in the years 2004 to 2012 were female. And Michael Thali, director of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Zurich, said he has noticed the trend among the medical students entering their programme. “We have 12 residents. Only two are men,” he told swissinfo.ch.
The forensic profile
Forensic professionals name a range of characteristics they see as positive and which go beyond gender however.
Beat Kneubuehl says a career in forensic ballistics needs “a great deal of fantasy and creativity”.
And according to Thali, “you have to have an internal fire for forensics. You have to be interested in solving cases. It’s like if you watch TV or are reading a [crime novel]. You have to be interested in the solution. If you don’t have that over time or over the years I think you’re absolutely wrong for forensics.”
No 9-to-5 job
Nor is forensics a career for people who want to work regular hours.
Thali, who also heads the division of forensic medicine and imaging in Zurich, says a typical day in his department begins at 7am with scanning of dead bodies using a non-invasive procedure he helped develop, called Virtopsy, followed by analysis, autopsies and reports for courts and police.
A variety of cases are handled. Murder cases are interspersed with more mundane tasks, like evaluating the blood of drunk drivers. “You never know what will happen. That’s the interesting aspect of the job,” says Thali.
Forensic television series airing in Switzerland in March 2013
Body of Proof
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation
CSI New York
Hautnah – Die Methode Hill
Waking the Deadend of infobox
Too few positions
In Switzerland, a country with a low violent crime rate compared with 35 other members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), one of the main limiting factors for a career in forensics is the relative scarcity of jobs.
Statistics for 2008 graduates of the Lausanne programme show that one year after obtaining their degree, 28 of 36 graduates (78 per cent) were working, and 19 of those 28 (68 per cent) were working in their field. The five people in Kneubuehl’s group share a total of two-and-a-half full-time positions. And although the Zurich forensics programme has expanded greatly in the past 20 years, from 60 employees to 150, there are still few positions for people who want to move up the career ladder.
“If you really want to make an academic career then there are not a lot of job offers [in Switzerland],” says Thali.
And yet there’s still interest in forensics – virtual or otherwise. The Lausanne school stated that it is “overwhelmed” with requests for information by potential students and the media.
Thali thinks that programmes like CSI have done a lot to raise the public’s awareness of the field. Currently, there are at least 15 forensic crime dramas airing on television in Switzerland.
“If you told people maybe ten years ago ‘I’m a forensic doctor’ most of them would have been shocked,” he relates. Today, many more people are interested.
“For us it’s not a bad PR effect,” he says.