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Fields & Applications Forensics, Mass Spectrometry, Data Analysis

Judgment Data

How did your interest in analytical chemistry begin?

I always loved science, but it was as an undergrad that I got hooked on mass spectrometry. I found it incredible that you could measure a property so precisely there could only be one substance that matched. After that, I looked for any and all opportunities to get involved with MS. For my PhD, I worked with Fred King, an expert on pulsed glow discharges. He did both optical spectroscopy and MS, and I knew I would get a great experience with him. I spent the first two years studying pulsed glow discharge plasmas using optical spectroscopy, and then I did a two-year internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory studying pulse glow discharges with MS.

When did you go down the forensics route?

I was hired by Ohio University to be involved with their Forensic Chemistry program – to do research, direct PhDs, and teach the undergraduate classes. It was a new area for me, so I did everything I could to become an expert: I went to conferences, visited crime labs, taught GC-MS workshops to get one-on-one time with forensic practitioners... I really became embedded within the community, and from there, started to develop research projects related to forensic chemistry. Being able to teach techniques I enjoy alongside an application that everyone finds appealing is a joy.

You once described the forensics field as “conservative”…

It has to be conservative because the stakes are so high. Having said that, as part of high-level committees like NIST OSAC (National Institute of Standards and Technology - The Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science), I get to communicate with many people trying to drag the discipline into the future. To move from the current safe zone will require the implementation of new methods, technologies and capabilities. In the future, I see more advanced chemometrics or statistics coming into chemistry – we need to get more intelligent about what to do with the data we have and how to interpret it.

How does that translate to the courtroom?

Historically, neither prosecution nor defense lawyers have known what kind of forensic evidence to ask for in court, or whether it was good science. Bad science is used over and over in the courtroom just because it has precedent. We need documents that explain each type of forensic evidence in a way that non-scientists can understand – the science behind it, how it meets Daubert/Frye criteria, why it ought to be admissible, how it should be applied properly, and what conclusions one can and cannot draw.

Does your role as Editor-in-Chief of Forensic Chemistry help move things forward?

I hope so. When we established the journal, we wanted to give authors academic freedom. We cover pretty much anything that could be used in a crime lab – but that doesn’t mean that it ever will (or should) be used. For example, submissions might cover something fundamental, such as understanding the kinetics of pyrolysis of a material – it is several steps away from being useful now, but ultimately could improve fire debris analysis. Or a unique instrument that we know won’t make it to a crime lab for 20-plus years. We’re trying to inspire people with what’s possible. At the other extreme, we accept very practical and implementable research like inter-laboratory method validations. Such research is not necessarily novel, but it’s extremely important for the community.

What projects are you working on?

We are working on a really cool experiment – an interesting mix of fundamental and applied chemistry – on the evaporation of gasoline, which is important for fire debris analysis. We’re using first principles and fundamental knowledge about volatility and evaporation rates of substances to understand the way gasoline will behave in a real fire scene at extremely elevated temperatures – and what we’re finding is really interesting. We’re pursuing other forensic research; for example, chemically determining the food source of certain blowflies, which is important in terms of forensic entomology. We’re also trying to understand the mass-spectral fragmentation patterns of cathinones, certain synthetic cannabinoids, and opiates like fentanyl to see if we can help practitioners interpret their spectra.Our work will help predict the types of spectra that are likely to come from drugs in the future.

What drives you?

Micro-epiphanies! For example, I’ve believed for more than a decade that the way we analyze mass spectra doesn’t do them justice – our algorithms are inadequate. I finally had a ‘Eureka!’ moment earlier this year, and we’re now working on a better way to interpret spectra. It is tremendously intellectually exciting to have an idea that you know ought to work, then figure out how to use the math to match your intuition. Of course, the ultimate goal (and the hardest part) is to share that new knowledge in such a way that you inspire other people to implement it. I live for that totally engrossing opportunity to advance science. It’s amazing to get paid to have an idea and then pursue it.

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About the Author
Glen Jackson

Glen Jackson is Professor of Forensic and Investigative Science at West Virginia University, USA.

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