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Dr Kari Pitts

Forensic scientist

Television shows like CSI and Bones feature super-scientists who can do it all, but Dr Kari Pitts says they are hard to find in the real world. Kari’s knowledge in glass, gunshot residue, paints, arson accelerants, soils and minerals makes her one of the most experienced forensic scientists in the WA ChemCentre physical evidence lab – but she still falls short of that Hollywood stereotype.

Kari says some popular shows were relatively accurate in terms of techniques, but took artistic license with timeframes and what results reveal about the crime. “I used to joke they could take a sample of paint and tell that the person was left-handed,” she says.

Forensic science in the real world

Kari works in a government chemical laboratory, but forensic scientists are employed in industries including toxicology, digital forensics, drug detection, food and pharmaceuticals, and accident investigation.

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At school, Kari excelled in chemistry, but didn’t want to be locked into repetitive work. This led her to a degree in analytical and forensic chemistry at Curtin University in Western Australia.

“I liked the theory and the chemistry, but also using the theory to help the community and the justice system,” she says.

Kari joined ChemCentre 13 years ago, after a Masters and PhD in forensic science. Several years later, she took the opportunity to expand her skills to soil and mineral evidence – this involved internal mentoring and a Master of Philosophy in Applied Geology.

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As a Senior Chemist and Mineralogist, Kari’s job still delivers the variety she loves. “Most of the time, it’s taking the evidence, analysing it using a large number of scientific instruments, and then reporting those results and interpreting them,” she explains.

She is sometimes called on to explain her results and their meaning to the jury or judge in criminal trials. Kari and her fellow chemists also get out of the lab a couple of times a year for training with the police bomb squad or arson branch. And, as a senior analyst, Kari travels to international conferences and meetings as well.

Kari recommends that aspiring forensic scientists learn the base science first – whether that be chemistry, biology, physics or computer science. “Forensics is the icing on the top – it’s not the stuff you’re going to be doing day-to-day,” she says.

Kari’s study and career pathway

  • Bachelor of Science (HONS) Forensic and AnalyticalChemistry, Curtin University
  • MSC and PHD (Forensic Science), UWA
  • mphil (applied geology), Curtin university
  • Senior Chemist and Mineralogist, Forensic Science Laboratory, ChemCentre

This article originally appears in Careers with STEM: Science.

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