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Monday, March 16, 2009

Dianne Burns, Forensic Scientist

Major Crimes Criminologist Tells All

By Silvia Uribe

As I was listening to Dianne Burns talk about her work complexities I was mesmerized, and I wanted to hear more. We were at a meeting, though, and it wasn't at all conducive for a lot of unrelated questions. Once we were done with the order of business I approached her and ventured to ask her for a time to meet and talk about her career. She immediately said yes.

On the scheduled day and time, we met at a restaurant in downtown Goleta, and after a few pleasantries, I started shooting questions.

How did you figure out that you wanted to be a forensic scientist?

During an Introduction to Forensic Science class, I found out that the minimum criteria to work as a forensic scientist was a science degree. I had two years of biology under my belt already, and after two more years, I got my degree at UC Davis. At the time, the O.J. Simpson trial's news was on TV every day, and they showed the criminalist testimony. I liked the way he gave his testimony and the scientific information.

Dianne said she wanted an exciting career that would allow her to work independently. "Not having a boss breathing down my neck was very important to me," she said. She also wanted job security and a decent salary - who doesn't! With the O.J. Simpson case still in mind, she decided to explore the field a little bit more. "It didn't take me long to make my decision." It was then that she started looking for a job.

Was it difficult to get what you were looking for?

Santa Barbara's forensics lab

There is not a lot of competition. If you're serious, you can get a job. It took me three or four interviews with the California Department of Justice (CDJ) before I got a job. After seven years at that job, I came to Goleta as a senior criminalist to the Santa Barbara County lab. A criminalist and a forensic scientist are the same thing, did you know that?

Can you define what you do?

Basically, I examine evidence from the crime scene, apply scientific methods to the evidence, and interpret the information. I then present my interpretation of the evidence in the court of law.

I do major [persons] crimes - homicides, rapes, and assaults. Other criminalists do alcohol, drugs, and firearms. I go out to the crime scene and collect all possible evidence. I usually have two crime scenes in one: The first one is the place where the crime was committed, and the second one is the body. I work diligently so that no biological evidence goes unnoticed.

What is it like to work with the dead?

I rationalize death. You can tell when the spirit is not there. You can tell that the human body is no longer inhabited by the person. You're only dealing with matter. However, I know that the body of a person is sacred to his or her family members, so I treat it with the utmost respect.

What traits does a person need to be able to do this work?

One needs to have the eyes of a child in a scientist's brain, and to be curious about what happened before and after the crime was committed. One needs to be able to observe details that others might not think about. This is very important in order to anticipate where the evidence might be found.

What do you like the most about your work?

I like presenting the information in court. It is a challenge to interpret all the scientific data into common words for people to understand it, but I like challenges!

Conversely, what do you like the least?

Paperwork. My work is very regulated, as it should be. Although I know that paperwork ensures that the work is done correctly, it still takes too much time.

What is in the future for the forensic science field?

This is already a very precise science. We are able to individualize, meaning to identify, DNA to the exclusion of anyone else, except for identical twins, for which the DNA is the same. In this case we have to rely on their fingerprints only. But, we need to acknowledge that this is a comparative science of the known and the unknown. For example, we might have sperm and know what the specific DNA is, but we might not know who it belongs to. Until we can put the known and the unknown together, we can't do much with this information, and it is always going to be so.

On the other hand, forensic science has advanced 100 years in 20. Predicting the future is risky, but two things come to mind: a) Smaller equipment - we will be able to bring our equipment to a crime scene, and b) Faster results - we will be able to take samples of available suspects at the crime scene, analyze them, and know if there's a match with the samples taken from the victim, right then and there!"

We also touched on the personal side and she acknowledged that it could be disruptive to family life, and relationships, especially when she has to go out to a crime scene at any given moment, day or night. However, she made it clear, "When there's a will there's a way, and we, women, know how to make things happen."

Every part of our conversation, every answer that Burns gave me was filled with the kind of passion that transmits enthusiasm, leaving one craving more. When we parted, I was left with the thought that as long as our criminal justice system has people of high ethics and professionalism like hers, justice can and will be served.

Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latina perspective.

Cross-posted at the

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