Name: Brad Helm
Born: Edmonton, Alberta
Profession: Forensic Science
You’ve probably seen the show CSI where Nick or Sara run trace evidence samples through machines to try to figure out their identity or to match it to a crime scene. But there are real life CSI stars who do this work on a day to day basis. Brad Helm at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police speaks about what it’s like to be a Forensic Technologist in a Trace Evidence Department.
What is a Forensic Technologist?
A Forensic Technologist performs analytical tests on exhibit materials from criminal investigations. Additionally, they are required to maintain, troubleshoot, and repair analytical instrumentation.
What is a typical day like for you?
Tough question! I think a day here at the lab is anything but typical. Since I work in the Trace Evidence Services Section, I perform analytical tests on non-biological materials. Specifically, I analyze unknown materials (some of which are from suspected terrorism-related activities) via X-ray Diffraction and X-ray Fluorescence. I also analyze Fire Debris for the presence of liquid ignitables.
Within these areas, I might, for instance, be identifying an unknown powder found on a corpse one day and identifying an unknown liquid in a Molotov cocktail the next. Adding to the variety, I work on longer term projects.
Currently, I am analyzing numerous fingerprinting powders for the presence of potentially harmful metals, and I am testing an instrument’s suitability in discriminating between legitimate and counterfeit coins – possibly a new service Trace Evidence will offer in the future.
So even though I might come into work with a game plan of what I will work on, I frequently encounter a wide range of exhibits and unique requests for projects. Days are anything but typical.
Chose a sandwich: Peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter and banana?
Peanut butter and Banana…with honey.
Did you always want to be a Forensic Technologist?
Not specifically. Even though I was always intrigued by chemistry and had some kind of chemistry career in mind, my first passion was, believe it or not, music.
What courses in high school prepared you for this field?
Chemistry, Physics, Math, and Electronics.
What is the last movie you saw? Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Ghost Rider. One thumb up…maybe at a 45 degree angle.
Where did you go to university or college?
Another loaded question…my background is pretty diverse! I completed a Diploma in Piano Performance at Grant MacEwan Community College in Edmonton, AB. Then I attended the University of Alberta for a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music, but before completing it, I decided to turn to more “solid” career and put music aside as a hobby.
Since I loved chemistry from childhood (chemistry sets for Christmas and lighting my dad’s shop on fire with pyrotechnic experiments), I attended the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) and received a diploma in Chemical Technology. Currently, I am at the University of Alberta for a B.Sc. in Science (Chemistry, of course). I will have my degree next year. (I think after this, I will have had it with school!)
How did you decide where to go?
I’ll specifically answer the question as it pertains to science. I chose NAIT for Chemical Technology because the school’s reputation is excellent and the prospects of getting a job are second-to-none. Also, NAIT didn’t require that I take options not science related – the program was 100% chemistry – or at the very least, chemistry-related coursework.
As for the University of Alberta, I chose it because it too has a good reputation for Chemistry training and it’s in the same city in which I work. Thus, I can work full-time while attending classes (I don’t recommend this!).
What’s one thing nobody knows about you?
I used to read encyclopedias as a kid…and that’s what led to the experiment that lit my dad’s shop on fire (by the way, I did put it out!).
Was there extra training required for this career after you finished all this schooling? If so, what?
Absolutely. The forensic lab provides internal training. For each area of expertise (i.e. Fire Debris Analysis), I am required to successfully complete the respective module. A typical training module involves assigned reading, practicing analytical tests, undertaking a mock-case from start to finish, and ultimately giving testimony in a mock trial. Additionally, there is external training for instrumentation, provided by the manufacturers, which I attend from time to time.
What is the coolest part of your job?
The coolest part is that there is always something happening. There is no routine!
What’s the worst part of your job?
Government bureaucracy. Sometimes things move too slow!
What’s your favorite cartoon character?
Towlie from South Park. I don’t watch the show, but I ran across the character flipping through channels…who would have ever thought…a talking towel…
Ooooops! Everyone makes mistakes so what was the dumbest thing you've ever done at work?
I once set up a sequence on an instrument, but forgot to increment the sample numbers. I got over 100 replicate analyses of the same exhibit (a little bit of overkill I’d say…).
Any advice that you would give others seeking a similar career?
RESEARCH THE REQUIREMENTS OF THE JOB! Most people don’t know what sort of education they require and spend years on a diploma/degree that is not recognized.
What are some great web links or references for someone interesting in reading up more about this career?
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police
– the Forensics Science Portal
Last question: what was your favorite thing about high school?
The cool options I took…machining, electronics, welding… “I can get credit for having fun?!!”