What is forensic science really like?

What’s it really like to have that dream job you’ve been eyeing off? We’ve found out for you and are busting myths about some hard-to-pin-down careers in STEM. This week, Professor Shari Forbes dishes the decomposing dirt on forensic science, and it’s nothing like CSI.

Forensic Scientist

Professor Forbes started studying forensic science before the era of CSI and other crime shows. “My perception was different to today, I didn’t have a full understanding of forensics,” she confesses. A love of chemistry and science saw her pursuing a career field where she could use applied chemistry everyday.


Take the quiz: Which forensic scientist are you?


“My parents thought I would be working in a morgue!” she laughs. It’s a common occurrence for friends and family to get the exact details confused, after all forensic science is such a broad definition of careers. To break it down, Professor Forbes studies human decomposition and works on Australia’s first ‘body farm’.

Forensic animal body farm
Above: Forensic science at work on an animal body farm.

A body farm is a project for studying human decomposition. Forensic science uses donated cadavers to study how the process is affected by outside influences. Although it may seem morbid, the practice helps to solve crime by better understanding time of death or improving facial approximation (creating a sketch of what the victim would have looked like).

Knowing she’s contributing to investigations is something that gives Professor Forbes’ job real meaning. “We’re working with the police and victims and their families, helping to build cases with the information we can offer the police.”

“I often tell people not everybody deals with bodies.” she says. She herself is often working with detector dogs, trying to understand how they detect scents and aiming to improve their efficacy. “They’re so unpredictable but they’re phenomenal in terms of their capability.” There are so many areas of forensics that don’t deal with bodies at all, if that’s not your thing. You could try forensic drug chemistry, or forensic psychology instead.

Professor Forbes says the best kind of forensic scientist is someone with an avid passion for science. “Make sure you love science. Recognise that it’s not what you see on CSI. Pick something you’re passionate about and your work won’t feel like a job.”

But what about the smell? “We learn on the job, new recruits will know if they’re squeamish, if they can handle the odour. This job requires a strong stomach and an ability to desensitise.”

Think you can handle it? 

-Eliza Brockwell

Professor Forbes’ path to forensic science:

> > Bachelor of Science, Applied Chemistry and Forensic Science, UTS

> > PhD in Science, UTS

Shari Forbes Forensic Scientist

“Make sure you love science. Recognise that it’s not what you see on CSI. Pick something you’re passionate about and your work won’t feel like a job.”

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