An Interview with Victor Weedn
“Those who want to learn about forensic science need to earn science degrees, not criminal justice degrees. Forensic scientists need to be able to understand how to operate analytical instruments in a laboratory, not the principles of social science. A lot of forensic programs that are nested in criminal justice departments are not very high quality.”
Victor Weedn, MD, JD, is the Assistant Medical Examiner at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, Maryland. He is also vice president of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, though he works mainly in forensic pathology.
Dr. Weedn’s extensive educational background includes an MD, a Juris Doctorate and a bachelors degree from University of Texas. Although he has worked as a hospital pathologist in the past, he now spends much of his day performing autopsies for the state of Maryland.
In your own words, what is a forensic pathologist?
Forensic pathologists serve the public by investigating crime scenes, determining the cause of death in a homicide and speaking out in support of public health. We are better known for our role in the criminal justice system, where we scientifically analyze evidence in a crime and testify in court. But we also advocate for public health policies that keep people safe.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a forensic pathologist,” what would your response be?
I would tell them that those who want to learn about forensic science need to earn science degrees, not criminal justice degrees. Forensic scientists need to be able to understand how to operate analytical instruments in a laboratory, not the principles of social science. A lot of forensic programs that are nested in criminal justice departments are not very high quality.
What level of education is necessary to become a forensic pathologist?
A forensic pathologist is different than a forensic scientist, because to be a pathologist who performs autopsies, you need to be a licensed doctor. That requires 4 years of medical school. After medical school, you need to complete a 4-year pathology residency, followed by a year-long forensic pathology fellowship. Young people need to understand that there is simply no way around all of these years of training. If you are interested in the field of forensic pathology, you need to be prepared to make a big commitment.
What do you enjoy most and least about being a forensic pathologist?
I have worked in many different capacities as a pathologist, and I enjoyed different aspects of each job. For example, now that I am a forensic pathologist, I appreciate the variety that each day brings. One day I might serve as the expert witness for Cessna Aircraft because of my expertise in aircraft accident investigation, and the next day I am investigating the cause of death in a homicide case.
I also like that my hours are more regular than those of other kinds of doctors. For example, many surgeons essentially live at their hospital, and they have to give up many aspects of their private life. But as long as you are not the only pathologist in your county, you can have a more normal life, because your hours are more scheduled. You might be on call 1 weekend a month, but it isn’t completely disruptive to your schedule.
The aspect of my job that I like the least might be what you would expect, which is working with decomposed bodies. They are unpleasant and they smell bad. But it is part of the job and, happily, most of the cases that I deal with are not that way.
What is a typical day like for you?
In a typical day, I meet with my colleagues, including a Medical Legal Death Investigator, some members of law enforcement and fellow pathologists, around 8:30 a.m. for rounds. That means we gather together in a room to examine dead bodies that need autopsies performed. So we walk from table to table as a group. We learn the history of each body as a group and then divide up the cases among ourselves. We could get very few cases, or we could get an enormous amount of cases, which keeps me working on autopsies until 6:00 p.m. But most of the time, we are done around 1:00 p.m.
In the afternoon, we sometimes have a special conference to learn more about specific kinds of pathology, like neuropathology or cardiovascular pathology. Alternately, we might have free time to work on writing up our cases. It probably takes about 2 hours to do an autopsy, but it can take longer to write up the reports.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
The truth is that I am not balanced. Most of my colleagues are more balanced than I, because hospital pathologists have scheduled hours that let them go home in the evenings to their families and their friends. I do not have the same balance in my current position.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a forensic pathologist and what traits would hinder success?
To succeed as a pathologist, you should be detail-oriented and intellectually curious. An eye for details is important, because a lot of this job relies on your ability to recognize patterns. But intellectual curiosity is even more important because without it, you aren’t going to be able to cover the vast amount of information that you need to know.
A trait that would hinder you in this field is the inability to express yourself. Forensic pathologists are often asked to testify in court, and you will need to be able to explain your findings and your conclusions to a jury.
Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming a forensic pathologist should pursue?
Students who are interested in forensic pathology first need to get into medical school. To do that, it is important that people have some exposure to hospitals or medicine. People on admissions committees want to know that students are not just talking a good game. They want to know you won’t faint at the sight of blood and that you know what you are talking about. So you should try to land some volunteer work in a hospital or at a research laboratory because that will enhance your credibility in your medical school application.
What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most valuable for the work you do today?
My background in anatomy is applicable to my job every day. I spend a lot of my time dissecting bodies, so I need to have a very detailed knowledge of the way that the body works.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a forensic pathologist?
I would tell students to keep in mind that real forensic investigation is nowhere near as quick and definitive as it appears to be on television shows like CSI. In those shows, investigators know exactly what happened in a crime scene in a matter of minutes, and they are able to determine a perpetrator based on scripted evidence. That is not the way of true forensic pathology. If it was, it wouldn’t take more than 10 years of training to become licensed.