Forensic chemists

Forensic chemists

Forensic chief enjoys using his skills in the laboratory to outwit criminals and bring them to justice

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Photo: Edward Wong
Just like detectives in crime fiction, forensic chemists collect evidence at crime scenes, do tests in labs and present reports in court. They tackle crimes from burglary to homicide, solving mysteries and helping enforce the law.

Young Post meets To Kwong-yuk, chief chemist at the Forensic Science Division of the Government Laboratory.

Requirements

A forensic chemist must have a sense of justice. The job involves working out the cause of death, pinpointing the culprit and bringing them to justice.

To says that while uncovering mysteries in real life may not be as exciting and dramatic as in novels, it brings him great satisfaction.

Sharp observation and judgment are a must. Forensic chemists have to identify what is worth looking into, interpret evidence and present findings.

They must have a big desire to learn. Every case is different. In complicated cases, they must know about many areas of forensic science or they may miss important evidence.

It also takes good personal skills and teamwork. Chemists cannot be at every crime scene so they have to talk to police about how to deal with the exhibits.

Being able to cope in many challenging situations is also crucial. They could find themselves in a burnt-out building at a fire scene or looking at walls smeared with blood in a homicide case.

They also have to be ready to go to work at any time because crimes happen around the clock.

Qualifications

The basic entry requirements are a bachelor's degree in chemistry, biochemistry or forensic science; plus a master's degree.

But local universities do not offer forensic science so you might have to go overseas to find the right course.

Once you have the job you will also get training. This could include, for instance, how to investigate the cause of a fire, re-constructing traffic accidents or interpreting the bloodstain patterns at a murder scene.

If you do not want to go for a master's, two years' relevant postgraduate research will also work.

To did a bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of Hong Kong and continued his studies in biochemistry.

Jobs in the Government Lab come under the civil service, so people applying for a position must also pass the Aptitude Test in the Common Recruitment Examination (CRE).

Average Pay

When you enter the Government Lab, you begin with the position of Chemist. According to To, you can expect to start at HK$36,000 per month. As you accumlate experience, the pay can go as high as HK$70,000.

Work prospects

A couple of government organisations offer positions.

The first choice is the Government Lab, which serves the police and the Customs and Excise Department.

Once trained, the chemists start off with simple cases. For example, if you are in the biochemical section, you will work on burglary cases.

To can handle several routine cases a day. But when it comes to difficult ones he can deal with only about three a week.

Two of the forensic team's interesting cases have been the one involving the death of renegade police officer Tsui Po-ko in 2006 and the recent Manila hostage incident.

The police force also has its own forensic teams. The Identification Bureau deals with fingerprints and photographs. The Forensic Firearms Examination Bureau deals with guns and ammunition.

Long-term work prospects

Sixteen years into his career, To has worked his way up from chemist to senior chemist and now chief chemist. He works on hard cases like homicide and rape, handles quality assessment and manages his team.

Where to apply

You can shoot for the Government Lab or the Identification Bureau and Forensic Firearms Examination Bureau within the Police Force.

A day at work

To works five days a week and is also often on call.

He and his assistants start their days discussing exhibits to be examined.

To then collects evidence from crime scenes, does preliminary testing and analyses and interprets the results. For example, he might check a weapon for DNA, blood stains and fibre from clothes.

In the afternoon he prepares investigation reports. His team will cross-check their reports with other workers and also their supervisors.

The teams also attend crime scenes. The accident reconstruction group does one or two a week. The crime group visits three or four sites a week.

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