An Interview with Tatiana Scott
“I have always loved investigation, so what I enjoy most is the feeling of personal satisfaction that I get out of providing my expertise in a case. During the time that I worked in a lab, I also gained satisfaction from giving back something useful to the community.”
Tatiana Scott is a forensic scientist who specializes in toxicology. As a forensic toxicologist in Brooklyn, New York, she tested biological samples to determine if they contained traces of drugs.
Tatiana has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Science in Forensic Science. After 3 years of forensic laboratory experience, she was inspired to step out of the lab in order to tutor and mentor prospective forensic scientists through her online organization, Forensic Nexus. In general, she enjoys the investigative nature of forensics and is happy to increase awareness of the subject, as well as share her experiences in the field when she teaches workshops.
In your own words, what is a forensic scientist?
A forensic scientist is someone who applies science to the ethics of the law. If a crime is committed, a forensic scientist uses scientific facts to come to a conclusion about who was involved.
In my case, I worked in a forensics laboratory for 3 years as a toxicologist, which is a fairly common type of forensic scientist. My laboratory processed biological samples like blood and urine for drug testing. It was my job to analyze the samples to determine if there were any toxins present and in what quantity. If there was anything suspicious about the samples, I reported those findings.
As forensic toxicologists, we work in cooperation with other professionals, including law enforcement, but not necessarily for them. Our role is to provide scientific evidence that can be used in criminal cases. When I worked in the lab, I tested samples provided to me by police officers, crime scene investigators and medical examiners. After testing the samples and reporting our findings, we were sometimes asked to testify in court.
However, we also worked with the private sector to perform employee drug testing and human performance testing for athletes. Many of the cases I worked on did not relate to law enforcement at all.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a forensic scientist,” what would your response be?
I would tell them to put in the time to research the many different disciplines within the field before they decide to follow this path. Many students tend to think that forensic scientists are only crime scene investigators, as is often depicted on television, but in reality there are a many different forensic professionals that are essential to an investigation, and therefore many other avenues that a prospective student can pursue.
What level of education is necessary to be a forensic toxicologist?
If you want to be a forensic toxicologist, it is best to obtain a bachelors degree in any of the major sciences, like biology or chemistry. Then, in order to be competitive for a position at a laboratory, I would recommend pursuing a masters level degree in either forensic science or forensic toxicology.
Are there any licensing or certification requirements to become a forensic toxicologist?
There are some specific licensing requirements, but they vary by state and by the type of laboratory you work in. For example, I live in New York, which requires all scientists to obtain licenses to work as lab technicians. I recommend that students research the requirements in the state where they want to work.
Why did you decide to become a forensic scientist?
I decided to become a forensic scientist while I was studying biology at Syracuse and was introduced to the subject during a lab assignment. The idea that a person could use biology to solve a crime intrigued me.
What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about being a forensic scientist?
My biggest misconception was that I thought I could just apply for a job as a general forensic scientist. In reality, there are many different types of forensic scientists and you need to choose a specialization. It is very difficult to gain a realistic impression of the different careers before you actually enter the field.
That is why I decided to take a step back from laboratory work and start an organization called Forensic Nexus. The organization’s website profiles the different disciplines in forensic science and shows students what a typical day is like for different specialists in the field. It also displays what kind of academic background is required to become a forensic scientist. Plus, I provide mentorship and tutoring services along with tons of forensic resources.
What do you enjoy most and least about being a forensic scientist?
I have always loved investigation, so what I enjoy most is the feeling of personal satisfaction that I get out of providing my expertise in a case. During the time that I worked in a lab, I also gained satisfaction from giving back something useful to the community.
Since I have recently taken on the role of an educator, I have also come to enjoy teaching, which is another way to give back. I am able to provide resources that I didn’t have while I was in school, and it feels great to make sure that students are prepared for what they are going into.
However, I do not enjoy the idea of testifying in court. I haven’t been able to do that professionally yet, but I had some experience with court testimony in my forensic program at school. We had mock trials, which were extremely stressful, intimidating and difficult. I definitely admire those scientists that have done it in real life and excelled.
What is a typical day like for you?
During the time that I was working in the lab, I typically started the day by printing out a list of pending cases to determine what samples I needed to work on. The samples were usually urine, blood or saliva, which I tested with an instrument that could determine the presence of drugs.
If the sample tested positive for drugs, I would perform further tests to determine the type of drugs and the concentrations of those drugs. After that, I wrote up the results in a report. I went through a few thousand samples each day. Although I had a supervisor, nearly all of the work was done independently.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
Balancing work and personal commitments does not present much of a challenge now that I am self-employed. And even when I worked in the lab, I found it easy to strike an appropriate balance. I only worked 40 hours a week and I didn’t have to take my work home since all my equipment was in the laboratory space. So once I left the lab, it wasn’t very difficult to find time for my personal life.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a forensic scientist and what traits would hinder success?
You should be detail-oriented because there isn’t any room for mistakes in this field. Unfortunately, as human beings, we do make them, but a forensic scientist has to catch them before they become a major problem.
You must also love both science and studying. You need to be constantly reading and researching about the developments in the field in order to remain knowledgeable about advancements in forensic technology.
Finally, you cannot be dishonest. Many times, you will be in a situation where a person’s guilt or innocence is determined based on your lab results and your testimony. You have to be aware of that and have a high degree of integrity.
Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?
During my formal education, I should have looked harder for a mentor. I couldn’t find many forensic professionals who were willing to provide guidance. But now there are social media networks like LinkedIn and Facebook that give access to many professionals. Perhaps there were always professional resources available and I did not look hard enough when I was in school.
Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming a forensic scientist should pursue?
If you are interested in becoming a forensic scientist, you should find an internship to determine if that is really what you want to do. Look for city or state internships, and if you can’t find one, contact a police station or a laboratory and ask about shadowing a professional. There is always a way to learn and there are always people interested in making room for you. But you have to be the one to reach out.
What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most and least valuable for the work you do today?
All the science classes that I took prepared me for the field, but chemistry was particularly valuable. If I went through school all over again, I would have minored in chemistry since I used it all the time in the lab.
But looking back, I believe that all of my classes had value, not just chemistry. Even those outside of science helped qualify me to be a forensic scientist because no job draws from just one field. If anything, I would have taken more classes because a well-rounded education is so crucial.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a forensic scientist?
I would caution students to research all of the different disciplines in this field and not rely on their preconceived notions about the field. I would ask the question, “Why are you interested in forensic science and what does that mean to you?” If a student’s idea is something they learned from television, I would tell them to talk to a real forensic scientist before jumping in.