On the job: Heidi Baker
ESR senior scientist Heidi Baker talks to Dan Phillips about the day-to-day realities of being a forensic scientist.
How did you become a forensic scientist?
I have an honours degree in genetics so I was interested in DNA, but when I left school my goal was to become a personal trainer. But when a friend of mine mentioned that FSS (UK-based Forensic Science Service) was recruiting people with my degree skills, I decided to throw my hat into the ring. If I’m honest, I didn’t really know what forensic scientists did. When I joined, DNA profiling was just taking off in forensic science so I was very lucky to get recruited. And here we are after 10 years with the FSS and another 10 at ESR!
What kind of person is best suited to your role?
You need empathy and a willingness to help, because you find yourself with some dark scenarios and you need that inner spirit that makes you think, I can’t turn back the clock and stop what’s happened, but I can do something positive. So I guess it’s that aspect of being able to deal with those harsh realities.
How gruesome is the job? How do you deal with a difficult case?
Obviously there’s often bodies involved and sometimes being at a scene can be quite traumatic so you focus on your work which is a really good way to get through it. It’s hard to know what impact each case will have on an individual, so we have counselling available to help us if needed – we also talk to our colleagues and debrief in that way.
Also, I think having a lot of positive stuff that you do outside of work helps, so I come home to a gorgeous labrador and the sight of him jumping around and being over the moon to see me tends to melt anything horrible away.
You specialise in DNA evidence. How broad is the initial training and do all forensic scientists end up specialising in a given area?
I was trained in London and at that point they were keen on people having a broad education so you looked at DNA, body fluids, blood patterns and physical evidence like footwear marks, tool marks, paint, glass and fibres. Once you have that broad knowledge you then start to specialise.
In New Zealand we have two groups: One that does scene work and the initial screening of exhibits that come in and one that does DNA profiling which is the unit I am part of. I have also spent a year seconded to the Christchurch scene group.
For the folks who watch crime dramas on TV, what’s a realistic turnaround time for getting results back?
In terms of day-to-day work, weeks at least. If one of our customers has a particular need to get a sample processed quickly, then that can happen in a matter of days but it would just depend on what their urgency is.
Why are you a member of the PSA?
I really appreciate the fact that there’s a group of people who work together to achieve better outcomes for everybody. I believe, especially for people who are starting out in their careers, it’s really important to have people around you who are looking out for you and making sure that the conditions that you’re working under are fair and reasonable and that those are sustained for new people joining the organisation.