Interview with Michelle Peck
Forensic Chemist: Georgia Bureau of Investigation
In an interview with Michelle Peck, a forensic chemist at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the reader will learn the ins and outs of becoming a forensic chemist as well as the process of how samples are tested. After a police officer or investigator finds drugs or contraband, at a crime scene of a traffic stop, the samples are sent to the forensic chemistry laboratory. One out of five chemists will become responsible in the future of a suspect. However, being backlogged for two years does not make for an easy job for forensic chemists in the state of Georgia.
Keywords: forensic chemist, contraband, samples, evidence, Testing
Interview with Michelle Peck
Forensic Chemist: Georgia Bureau of Investigation
Becoming a forensic scientist was not always something that was in the cards for Michelle Peck. However, over the last ten years, she has found her calling with the Georiga Bureau of Investigation. Michelle found her passion for chemistry after taking a class with a phenomenal teacher. Michelle stated, “I was a chemistry nerd in high school” and “because of that passion I decided to follow that love to college” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). After applying and being accepted into the professional chemistry program at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, Michelle’s passion for chemistry continued to grow, even after being “traumatized by the physical chemistry course” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
What is Your Background?
Michelle knew that a bachelor’s degree in chemistry could lead her down many different paths, but she was unsure of what she truly wanted to do with the degree ” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). Many of the options, veterinary school, pharmacy school, and dentistry school were out of the question for Michelle as she was paying for school on her own ” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). Because Michelle always thought about her high school teacher and how much she learned, she decided that she could become a teacher and help students find the same passion for chemistry. After graduating from the University of Georgia, Michelle continued her education at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, and earned a master’s in education with a focus on chemistry ” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
One of Michelle’s close friends knew that she needed a job after graduating and informed her of a chemist position that was open with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). Michelle had several concerns before applying to GBI. She had never had a job and did not think that they would hire her right out of school, but she knew that she had to start somewhere (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020. After applying to GBI, several months went by, background and reference checks were collected, and she was hired as a forensic chemist with GBI. “I am very, very grateful for my job, and being able to use what I went to school for. During these difficult times, with the economic crash and unemployment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am also thankful for my position with the state” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
Is Working at the GBI Just like Television Shows?
When asked if working at GBI can be compared to the television shows, Michelle exclaimed that it is nothing like what people see on television. “There are lots of specialties within forensic science, fingerprint analysis, arson analysis, chemistry, pathology, and many others. However, at the GBI in Macon, Georgia, there is only the pathologist laboratory and the chemistry laboratory” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). Most television shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, show the scientists collecting evidence and bringing it back to the laboratory but scientists, like Michelle, have never been to the crime scene and do not work as closely as the shows portray (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
What is a Typical Day for a Forensic Chemist?
When asked what a typical day is like at the GBI for a chemist, Michelle gave the same explanation that she generally would when someone tours the GBI in Macon, Georgia. “Before I can start doing my job, the laboratory needs evidence. We receive evidence from police officers and investigators in one of two ways; Via FedEx, UPS, or USPS, generally, FedEx, or the officer can drop the sample off at the laboratory. The evidence must be packaged in a specific way by the officer to ensure the safety of laboratory staff and to preserve the evidence. When packages are delivered, either by mail or dropped off, the package is placed in a locker looking lockbox that cannot be opened from the front once it is shut” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). The evidence is then collected by a laboratory technician who takes several photographs as they are opening the package (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). Once the evidence is opened and photographed, it is logged into the system and placed in a secure vault (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). Only certain people are allowed to enter the vault and add or remove evidence that is examined by the forensic chemist (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
How are Samples Obtained from the Vault?
Once Michelle is ready to start her day, she has a technician retrieve evidence samples from the vault. “Typically, I ask for the technician to get twenty evidence bags so I can run samples for several cases that day. I can only have one evidence bag open at a time, so I do not accidentally mix up or cross-contaminate a case” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). Michelle compares that evidence bag with the photograph that was taken upon arrival to ensure that it is, in fact, the same piece of evidence. Once she has made a confirmation that the evidence is the same, she opens the evidence bag and gets to work. It is interesting to note that Michelle and other scientists open evidence bags from the bottom.
“We do this because after the examination is done, the evidence is picked up by the officer that submitted. They will then keep the evidence at the precinct and use it as an exhibit in the courtroom. Because of the nature of the bags, the officer must be able to show the jury that it is, in fact, the evidence that he submitted, with the date, signature, and other information written on the top of the bag. If we opened the bags from the top, we would disturb the seal and destroy that piece of the puzzle” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). After opening the bag, Michelle takes a small “pinch” of the sample, analyzes the sample, writes a report, seals the bottom of the bag back up, and sends it back to the vault where it will wait to be picked up by the submitting officer (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
Most Challenging Aspect of Being a Forensic Chemist
When speaking with Michelle, it seemed like she has a reasonably straightforward job. However, it is quite the opposite. Michelle was asked what the most challenging aspect of her job is, and her response was slightly startling. Michelle explained that she is required to analyze and write reports for ninety cases per month. While the numbers seem low, she explained that never every case is clear cut. “Ninety cases per month means that if there are approximately twenty working days, I have to complete four and one-half cases a day. However, what people do not understand is that each bag may contain ten to twenty pieces of evidence that must be sorted through to find a small piece of contraband. Some cases are simple. You open up the bag, find a crack rock, test the rock, and get a positive test for crack/cocaine. In one case, I was sent a big bottle of what appeared to be someone’s cut [a substance used to dilute a drug and increase the weight] that happened to look like sugar” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). Michelle went on to explain that testing the entire bottle would be tedious, and occasionally happens. Luckily enough, she happened to find a powder substance on the side of the jug. She was able to test the powder, which came back positive for cocaine (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
Other issues that increase the time that it takes to examine evidence is that occasionally Michelle will test a substance that comes back as “too weak to call positive” according to the standards at the GBI. Additionally, with any substance, Michelle must run two different types of tests that are both positive for that substance (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). Unfortunately, another issue with the evidence that officers often collect from a crime scene is that they often send in something that they think looks like a controlled substance.
When this happens, Michelle needs to prove that there are no drugs in the sample, which takes more much more time than proving that there are drugs in the sample. One example that Michelle provided is that an officer submitted a sample that he thought was crack. Due to years of experience, Michelle knew that the sample was not crack, and appeared to be candle wax. She was required to prove that the sample was candle wax. While the process to test the sample is longer, the written report will also be more difficult as all of the chemical properties in the “contraband” will be listed rather than stating that the sample was, in fact, crack/cocaine (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
How are the Samples Tested?
In the field, officers can use presumptive tests that use colorimetric analysis, meaning that the reagent will change colors if the suspected substance is present (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). However, Michelle explained that often these tests are not accurate and have a history of giving positive results on breath mints (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). In the laboratory, samples are tested by first creating a solution containing crushed pieces of the substance if not already a powder and an alcohol base that is injected into the instruments or machines (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). The individual compounds are reported and interpreted (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). “It’s a relatively straightforward process, but as I said earlier, finding the contraband out of everything submitted by the officer can become the tricky part” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
What is the Most Interesting Drug to Test?
Michelle receives various types of contraband anything from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) laced brownies, muffins, or Sour Patch Kids to ecstasy pills shaped like Donald Trump’s head, dolphins, and owls in various colors. She has had chocolate bars laced with mushrooms (‘shrooms) that needed to be sampled. Her favorite drug to test for is ecstasy. Because of the various shapes, sizes, and colors, she feels like a “mad chemist,” which leads to noteworthy reports that are often read allowed in the courtroom (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
How Often do You Know What the Drug is Before Testing?
Michelle, being modest, explained that eighty to eighty-five percent of the time, she knows what the contraband is before she even tests the sample (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). “After ten years of working at the GBI, you start to know what kind of drugs are coming into the laboratory. Even though the colors change and different chemicals are added to cut the drugs, you just kind of know” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
What Advice do You Have For People Looking to Work at GBI?
The best advice that Michelle gave was to apply to while still in school. “There have been plenty of times that we interviewed students. The process takes such a long time after background checks, and other necessary tasks are completed that by the time you are done with school, you may finally get a call from the GBI” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). There is always hope for students that feel stuck in their current positions but feel as though they cannot apply until they complete their program (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020). “Like Nike says, Just Do It” (M. Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020).
Michelle Peck, personal communication, May 22, 2020
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