If you watch popular TV detective series or read crime novels, you might think that the smoking gun or carelessly left fingerprint from an ungloved hand are the keys to solving all kinds of crime mysteries. In reality, there’s another branch of forensic investigation that’s at the heart of crime-solving: forensic serology. When combined with the incredible science of DNA analysis, forensic serology often provides the indisputable piece of evidence that places a suspect at the scene of a crime and ultimately puts them behind bars. It is the hard science behind thousands of real-life cold cases finally being solved. It can be a detective’s best friend and a criminal’s worst enemy — and as the science behind it advances at breakneck speed, it’s hard to imagine any limitation to the secrets it can reveal in time.
Forensic Serology Definition
So what is forensic serology and how is it used? We spoke to Professor Ismail M. Sebetan, Director of the Forensic Sciences Program at National University to get some answers.
“Forensic serology is the branch of forensic sciences dealing with identification and characterization of biological, evidentiary samples — such as blood, semen, saliva, sweat, breast milk and any other bodily fluids,” says Professor Sebetan.
Forensic Serology and DNA – Partners in the Fight Against Crime
Forensic Serology and DNA analysis are closely aligned sciences, often dealing with the same evidentiary samples which are handled by the same forensic teams. The science behind serology and DNA are therefore typically taught as a single subject. Serology is used to find evidence of an identifiable body fluid, while DNA analysis seeks to accurately match those fluids to a specific individual.
Sebetan explains that forensic serologists will typically collect evidentiary samples from a crime or death scene before investigating the source of the samples and conducting further analysis with the aim of matching the sample to an individual suspect or victim.
“First, when we find fluids, we don’t know the nature of that fluid, so we have to identify what type of fluid we have collected,” says Sebetan. “Then we have to ask, is this fluid coming from a human or a non-human? If it is human, we need to find out if it belongs to a specific individual by looking at genetic markers and DNA, before we can use it as evidence.”
A Revolution in Crime Scene Investigation
Sebetan has been at the forefront of forensic science for more than 40 years. He has worked as an MD, a forensic pathologist, practiced and taught forensic serology and DNA analysis, and published more than 170 peer-reviewed scientific publications and presentations.
During this time, he has seen a “revolution” in the advancement of forensic serology and DNA analysis.
It is worth remembering, despite forensic science being at the center of millions of criminal investigations and court cases in recent years, the application of DNA as an investigatory tool in crime is an incredibly young science. It was first used in evidence in a British court in 1986, ultimately proving the innocence of a 17-year-old man with learning difficulties who was a suspect in a double rape-murder case. Widespread DNA testing among the local community later identified the true killer who received a life sentence for his crimes.
DNA-based evidence then saw its first conviction in a US court in 1987 when used in evidence against the serial rapist, Tommy Lee Andrews. Since then DNA has been used to identify, exonerate, and convict many millions of individuals around the world.
Famous cases involving DNA evidence have exonerated and freed more than 17 death row inmates in the US — one of those death row prisoners had served more than 31 years behind bars awaiting execution. DNA analysis (taking samples from individuals including members of the British Royal Family) was used to identify the remains of the last tsar of Russia, Nicolas II, who was executed along with his wife and children and buried in 1918. DNA was also used to identify the South American grave of Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele — his relatives refused to take ownership of his remains. DNA evidence continues to deliver justice, sometimes decades after a crime has taken place.
Could it be used to solve some of history’s biggest mysteries like the true identity of Jack the Ripper? Perhaps not yet, but, given time, you wouldn’t bet against it.
Even as a world-renowned expert in the field, Sebetan is constantly amazed by the speed of advancement in the sciences behind forensic serology and DNA analysis.
“When I started, there were only a few genetic markers and techniques we could use,” says Sebetan. “Now we have the most advanced techniques which, even with very minor traces of evidence, we can replicate biological samples 10 million times over to support our analysis.”
Sebetan stresses the incredible potential of evidence collected by forensic serologists by highlighting the fact that seeming insignificant amounts of fluid —in many cases mere stains that are often invisible to the human eye — can reveal incredible secrets in the hands of a highly trained forensic team.
The evolution of forensic sciences technology continues unabated and Sebetan is committed to ensuring National University’s graduates are equipped for constant pace of change.
“There have been many revolutions since I graduated,” says Sebetan. “For our students to succeed we must stay up-to-date in the field.”
Over the years, Sebetan has personally seen how advances in the field of forensic serology and DNA have successfully solved many previously unsolved crimes. However, not all cold cases Sebetan has worked on have involved grisly crime scenes.
When asked to recall his most memorable case, Sebetan talks about how, prior to taking on his teaching position at National University, his department solved a 30-year-old mystery regarding a baby mix-up at a maternity hospital in Japan.
“Samples were re-examined in 1985 when we started to use DNA,” says Sebetan. “We could analyze samples which previously did not reveal any significant findings, make the match, and resolve the mystery.
While DNA is now routinely used to prove paternity, few cases could surely match the personal impact on the individuals involved with such a case. Despite this, Sebetan remains humble in his reporting of the incident, signifying the importance of the wider science over his personal achievements.
“Thanks to the many dramatic advances in forensic serology and DNA analysis, many cold cases were solved in our department.”
Patience is a Virtue in a Fast Moving Science
As the science behind forensic serology and DNA analysis becomes ever more advanced, allowing those working in the field to accomplish more with less, the opportunity to solve even the most complex of cold cases where evidentiary samples are extremely limited, becomes a reality. However, just because the science is fast-moving, it doesn’t mean results are instantaneous. In the apparently fast-moving world of forensic sciences, patience is almost certainly a virtue.
This is where the science behind forensic serology and DNA analysis differs completely from the way it is portrayed in television drama and fiction.
“What they are doing on the TV is different from the reality,” says Sebetan. “They have to make it attractive to viewers. On TV, they solve all the issues in 30 minutes. Sometimes cases take months or even years before we solve them and many times, not all the cases will be solved.”
The study of forensic serology and DNA analysis is taught at National University as part of the criminalistics track on the Master of Forensic Science degree program. Students on the criminalistics track also study courses in trace evidence, advanced forensic toxicology, forensic anthropology, and archeology.
Sebetan warns this course isn’t for everyone and potential students will need to have the right qualifications to be accepted on the program. Due to the high level of scientific understanding required to understand the material studies in the program, the only route onto the criminalistics track is via a solid background in the sciences.
“Students have to have either a biology or chemistry degree or a mix of biology and chemistry,” says Sebetan. “Without this, they will fail.”
For students without a background in biology or chemistry, there is an alternative route into the field of forensic sciences which follows an investigative track. This focuses on advanced forensic investigative techniques for the field, giving the student a detailed understanding of the concepts supporting the forensic sciences.
Sebetan explains that because forensic serology has to be taught alongside DNA, there is just too much information to fit into a standard four-week course as typically offered by National University, so it is presented over an eight-week period as a double course.
The hands-on skills that need to be developed to master the specialization also require that students take some classes on-campus in San Diego.
“We cannot do it all as an online class,” says Sebetan. “To complete the master’s program in forensic science, students need to successfully complete eight courses online and four courses on campus.”
In forensic science, practical skills are equally as important as the theory behind the science.
“Students must learn the full process, says Sebetan. “This includes sample collection, avoiding contamination, keeping a chain of custody (the chronological documentation or paper trail that records the sequence of custody, control, transfer, analysis, and disposition of evidence), maintaining quality control and quality assurance, before doing all the required analysis and understanding the results. You cannot learn how to do this just from a lecture.”
Quality control and quality assurance are particularly important in a field like forensic serology and DNA because, despite the reliability of the evidence it represents, expert witnesses must ensure their findings stand up to the scrutiny in a court of law. Both the Frye Standard — which states that an expert opinion is admissible if the science on which it is based is generally accepted as reliable in the scientific community — and the Daubert Standard — which requires that all opinion is based on peer-reviewed science and that findings can be replicated — are applied to determine if evidence is admissible.
The highly complex nature of the many processes involved in serology is just one reason why the course cannot be delivered completely online. There is also the expense of the equipment students must learn how to master.
“We have equipment that costs upwards of $55,000 to do the DNA typing,” says Sebetan. “Students have to learn how to prepare the samples, use the equipment, and understand the full processes required to achieve the correct results. Without the lab experience, our students will not be able to succeed and they will not be able to get jobs. So we cannot teach it all online.”
Working in the Field
Sebetan is very proud of the achievements many National University alumni have made in the field of forensic serology and DNA analysis following their graduation.
“There are a lot of options available to our graduates depending on their specialization and their undergraduate education,” says Sebetan. “Those with a specialization in criminalistics will work in the lab.”
Sebetan easily recalls the success of some of his most notable former students.
“I can tell you that the duty manager of the crime lab in San Diego is our graduate, the manager of the police lab is our graduate, the manager of the police lab in Denver Colorado is our graduate — many of our graduates are working in laboratories all over the US.”
For graduates on the investigative track, the opportunities are also good.
“They can find opportunities working for crime scene investigation within police departments, working with NCIS, working with the FBI, working with the medical examiner’s office, or working with the district attorney’s office,” says Sebetan.
Job Growth and Earning Potential
According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, some 15,400 individuals worked as forensic science technicians in the United States in 2016. While remaining a highly specialist area (meaning competition for jobs might be high), the sector is experiencing significant growth with an additional 2,600 jobs expected to be created in the field before 2026. This represents a 17% increase in job demand and compares favorably to other science-related roles, such as chemists and material scientists, where job growth rates fall below national averages.
The national median annual wage for forensic science technicians currently stands at $58,230. However, in the state of California, which currently employs the highest number of professionals in this field (2,110 in May 2018), that median wage increases to $85,280.
Who Studies Forensic Science?
According to Sebetan, the typical student studying forensic serology and DNA in the Master’s of Forensic Science degree program tends to fall into two categories.
“First and foremost, there are the young graduates,” says Sebeton. “They are maybe just 23 or 24-years old and come to the MA immediately after finishing their bachelor’s degree.”
After years of studying, often on a traditional university campus with extended breaks during the summer and holiday season, many of these students are attracted to the accelerated program offered by National University. This enables them to complete their master’s degree as quickly as possible and start their professional lives.
“Then there are those who are working but want to change their careers,” says Sebetan. “Usually they are working in hospital labs or private labs.”
This second group is perhaps more typical of the wider National University student population who enjoy the flexibility of National University’s online courses and year-round enrolment enabling students to fit their education around work and family commitments.
Regardless of where the students come from, Sebetan believes it is the high quality of the program and the deep levels of student satisfaction that ensures interest in his classes is always high.
“I recently did a survey of my students, asking why the joined our forensic program,” says Sebetan. “80% of our students said they heard about it from another graduate. So really, the most important way to attract students to our program is to create a high-quality program and make sure our students are satisfied. That really is the best marketing for our program.”
Encouraging students, alumni, faculty members, and the wider forensic community to come together and build relationships is an important aspect of Sebetan’s job.
“I encourage our prospective students to make their own minds up about the program by actively encouraging them to speak to our students and alumni,” says Sebetan.
“Sometimes we do this with an open house-style event, where I invite prospective students to come to our campus, observe a class, and talk to the students. They are paying good money for their education — if they are not happy, they will say they are not happy.”
Long Term Relationships
Sebetan is also a great believer in maintaining relationships between students, alumni and the wider forensic science community long after graduation. This is important because it helps to facilitate much-needed internships for students in the field, helping many graduates kick-start their careers in forensic science in the city of San Diego and further afield.
So what advice would Sebetan give to a graduate considering joining the criminalistics track of National University’s Master of Forensic Science degree program?
“Come and join a class to see what we do and take the time to talk to our students and faculty members,” says Sebetan.
To learn more about how to attend a class on forensic serology and DNA analysis at National University and take your first step towards a career at the cutting edge of forensic science visit our program page.