Skip to main content
Career Day

He puts crime under the microscope

A forensic scientist on how pizza and gum can betray criminals — and what’s hard about testifying in court

By Amy Sutherland

Joe Ross has been a forensic scientist in the Boston Police Department since 2009.

What are the biggest misconceptions about forensic scientists?
On TV they have the DNA, figure out whose it is, and put him in jail, all in one day. In real life, it doesn’t work that way. We have a large number of cases that come into the lab. Even if we have just one case, it still takes at least a week or two to finish. Some take months.

What has been the weirdest sample you have tested?
A deliveryman was robbed and the robbers ate the pizza, and then left some there. We swabbed a slice and got a DNA profile from it.

What do you like best about your job?
The lab work. I also enjoy testifying in court, though it’s very difficult to convey DNA results to people on the jury who may have no clue what you are talking about. Some cases may ride mostly on the DNA, and if you don’t explain it well enough, that may affect the outcome.

What do you like the least?
We are a little desensitized to it, but the grossness of some of the evidence, of seeing a dead body. I can remember every body I’ve seen at a scene. But it’s your job and you move on.

“My parents watch all those shows. Every time I’ve watched with them, I’ll be like, ‘That isn’t how it happens.’ They’ll be like, ‘Get the hell out of this room!’”

How often do you go to crime scenes?
We only get called out for big cases, for homicides and for sexual assaults. I was on call last week and was called once, for a sexual assault case. We went to look at some bedding for stains.

What are the most common cases you process?
Luckily, homicides and sexual assaults are the minority. There are more breaking-and-entering. If B-and-Es are solved, they can prevent future crime.

Do you work on cold cases?
Recently we had a case from 1980, the homicide of a gay man. The police had had a suspect but didn’t indict him. We got a DNA profile from the remaining evidence. Then police followed the suspect around and he spat out a piece of gum. We tested the gum and were able to link him to the case. When we can solve those cold cases, those are my favorites.

What made you decide to become a forensic scientist?
I studied molecular and cell biology and planned to go into DNA research. Then I met Dr. Henry Lee, the forensic scientist who worked on the O.J. Simpson trial, in a class I took with two DNA analysts from a crime lab. I realized this is what I wanted to do and went to grad school at the University of New Haven, one of the best programs in the country.

Do you need a grad degree to work in forensic science?
When I started, you didn’t. Now that the TV shows have glamorized the job and people are so interested in the field, most have graduate degrees.

Do you watch those TV shows?
Sometimes. My parents watch all those shows. Every time I’ve watched with them, I’ll be like, “That isn’t how it happens.” They’ll be like, “Get the hell out of this room!”

Published on

Amy Sutherland is a writer based in Boston.

 

Illustration by Verónica Grech

Career Day

High in the air, with an eye on sharks

Wayne Davis started photographing great whites for a scientific study. He hasn’t seen them the same way since.

By Amy Sutherland

Stories in Career Day