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Taking Measure

Just a Standard Blog

Improving Forensic Chemistry: A Q&A With NIST's Ed Sisco

masked man with baseball cap seated at a lab bench pipetting samples

Ed Sisco analyzing wipe samples of the outside of suspected drug packaging by thermal desorption direct analysis in real-time mass spectrometry (TD-DART-MS).

Credit: E. Sisco/NIST

Ed Sisco has been a research chemist within the Surface and Trace Chemical Analysis Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) since 2014. His research has focused on chemical identification systems for forensics, homeland security and other applications. Ed is a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in the Emerging Leaders category, which is awarded to federal employees under the age of 35 who have made important contributions early in their professional careers. The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals are intended to highlight excellence in the federal workforce and inspire other talented and dedicated individuals to go into public service.

Tell us about your career path thus far. How did you get involved in forensic science?

When trying to decide what to study in college, the only two majors that stuck out to me were forensic science and landscaping architecture. I decided to pursue forensic science at West Virginia University, where several professors ignited my interest in research. From there I chose to pursue my Ph.D. in chemistry with an emphasis on forensic science. At the time you could not get a Ph.D. in forensic science. I went to the University of Maryland under a Department of Defense program where I was sponsored by the Defense Forensic Science Center (DFSC). Since UMD did not have a forensics-focused professor or project area, I looked for opportunities outside the university to do research, which is how I was introduced to NIST. I was able to complete my Ph.D. research at NIST and DFSC. After graduating I was able to stay on at NIST to continue work on our forensic chemistry portfolio.

Why do you find working in forensic science interesting?

Working in forensics is interesting for several different reasons. The community has real needs and often doesn’t have the time or resources to address them. Many laboratories are eager to work in a collaborative nature to address the challenges, which helps ensure the work we do is practical and implementable. The additional need of developing solutions that must be scientifically sound but also plug into the law enforcement and legal sectors presents another fun challenge.

What made you decide on a career in the federal government?

I discovered, during my time at WVU, that I preferred research over casework and needed to position my next steps to allow for that. Outside of academia there are only a handful of institutions that have research portfolios in forensics. Nearly all of them are part of the federal government. The flexibility to create your own research portfolio and the reputation of NIST in the forensics community are what drew me to this particular agency.

What are the big scientific challenges today in forensic chemistry?

There are several major challenges in forensic chemistry today. Many of them vary according to the specific discipline. The need for reference materials and reference data to ensure quality control and verify conclusions are universal to forensic chemistry. In many disciplines an identification cannot be made unless there is a reference material or reference data to compare it to.

There is a big push to move toward objective, quantifiable interpretation of results as well. Many of the conclusions currently made by forensic chemists are at least partly subjective. In seized-drug analysis one may rely on a visual color change in a chemical reaction to identify a class of drug, while in fire debris analysis a chemist will visually compare a chemical fingerprint from a suspected arson sample to that of gasoline to determine if it is a match. These subjective conclusions can be difficult to defend in court and do not provide a measure of the confidence in the conclusion. One way to alleviate these concerns is to develop ways to arrive at objective, probabilistic interpretations and conclusions. Objective conclusions are already commonplace in forensic biology (DNA).

In seized-drug analysis, novel psychoactive substances — things like synthetic opioids, cathinones and cannabinoids — have unleashed their own set of challenges. In addition to safety concerns due to the increased potency of these compounds, these rapidly changing chemical structures often require laboratories to have to identify complete unknowns, which is something they had not traditionally had to do. The vast list of compounds that the community now has to identify makes using many traditional approaches difficult.

What would you like your impact to be?

My overall goal is to develop a network of laboratories — local, state, federal and international — that work together to address current forensic chemistry measurements challenges while also ensuring the solutions that we develop will position the laboratories for future success. Any way that I can help make the jobs of forensic chemists simpler, safer or more efficient is a win. I also believe there is a need to develop ways to use the information generated by forensic scientists, especially in the seized-drug world, for other applications (such as public health) that can help address other societal needs.

What kinds of questions or concerns are being raised by the forensic chemists you meet?

The five biggest concerns are typically safety, backlog, data integrity, standards (physical or documentary) and the need for tools that can identify unknown substances. Chemists want to make sure that they are staying safe and that their results are high-quality and easily defensible. Laboratories are often eager to adopt new technology, but they lack the time and resources to go through the validation, training and method development processes. Because of this, chemists are also often interested in anything we can do to make that adoption process simpler. For DART-MS, a chemical identification technique that gives comparably fast results, for instance, we have developed a suite of documentation (validation plans, standard operating procedures, etc.) and training that we provide to laboratories who can adopt it to fit their needs. In combination with virtual or in-person training, we can help laboratories bring new technology online up to a year faster. 

What is it like to be a scientist working with the law-enforcement and forensic communities on often urgent problems?

Working in the forensics and law-enforcement fields has been an extremely rewarding and challenging experience. Unlike many other fields, when working within the legal sector you have the added requirements, and challenges, that the justice system presents. Any methods or technologies we share with practicing laboratories meet their accreditation requirements and therefore must be fully validated and supported in the literature. The tools and techniques must be defensible in court and must be easily explained to a lay jury. Because forensic scientists must be confident defending their conclusions in a legal setting, obtaining buy-in to implement new technology can be difficult. We help provide the confidence they need to stay on the cutting edge.

Why is collaboration so important to you and to the field of forensic science?

While I think having a diverse research portfolio is important, I have always tried to balance that heavily toward applied research that addresses current needs in the community. While there are numerous documents out there that outline these needs, the only way to really be sure you are addressing things that are important to the community is to work directly with them. Working with forensic chemists also helped me realize the unique set of circumstances they have to operate under and made me appreciate that the elegant solution may not be the best solution. The knowledge that forensic chemists have is also something that cannot be replicated by researchers, and making sure their expertise is incorporated throughout the research process is critical. Collaborating with forensic chemists is also critical to getting new approaches brought into the community. Helping one laboratory go through the adoption process makes adoption by other laboratories much simpler.

Read Ed's honoree profile

Read more about Ed's work in our feature story, "Safe, Efficient, Reliable: New Science in the Fight Against Killer Drugs."

Safely testing seized drugs that might contain fentanyl
Safely testing seized drugs that might contain fentanyl
Scientists describe a new way for police and forensic chemists to test seized drugs while minimizing the risk of accidental exposure to fentanyl, a super potent drug that can be dangerous if a small amount becomes airborne and is accidentally inhaled.

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