Quality Jobs, Quality Chemists


Everyday Chemistry: Warren Hull, Forensic Chemist
New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center
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How would you describe your job to someone standing behind you in the grocery checkout line?
I am a forensic scientist employed by the New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center, assigned to the Chemistry Investigation Unit.

What is your educational background?
I have a BS in chemistry with a general science minor from SUNY Albany.

What path did you take to get where you are now?
It was a sinuous route. When I first got out of school, I wanted to stay in Albany. I sold insurance for about 6 months; I didn't like insurance but I liked dealing with the public. There was a job opening at Albany Medical College and it was a chemistry job doing research so I worked there for two years. It was called the Institute of Pathology and Toxicology, and there I worked as an analytical chemist, analyzing the biological distribution of drugs, chemicals, and poisons in animals under study. I left because they were moving part of the facility out to New Mexico and moved on to the New York State Health Department. There, I was analyzing the stack gases being emitted into the air from nuclear reactors and that was my first experience with mass spectroscopy because we were analyzing the gases with a mass spectrometer.

How did you get your current job?
Someone who used to work at the Institute called me about a job over at the state police lab and was there anyone who would be interested? This was back when the Rockefeller Drug Laws had been passed and the need for drug analysis was increasing as a result. So I applied and got the job. What was interesting there is that they didn't have a mass spectrometer but there was money in the budget to get one. Since I had a little experience with one I was able to start at ground zero and take a complicated piece of equipment and integrate it into a service oriented lab into the methods we currently use. I've been here for about 28 years.

What do you consider to be your key career decisions?
Not selling insurance. Studying chemistry, enjoying analytical chemistry and deciding that I wanted to be part of the chemical legal system. There was no crime scene investigation (CSI) program back then; it was a wide-open field back then.

What is your ultimate career goal?
To run a forensic lab.

What kinds of people do well in your organization?
The system is a paramilitary organization. There are troopers who come through the police academy, some of whom then go on to be administrators. Then there are the support personnel, who are the civilians; I'm considered a civilian employee. It's a two-caste system and those people who are good at serving and conforming within the system do well. You're not going to change it. The people you're dealing with usually don't have a scientific background so it's hard to effect change in the laboratory. It's not research-oriented work, it's service oriented. The focus is more on production than freethinking.

What scientific backgrounds does the lab look for?
The lab is broken down in different areas; I've worked in the drug chemistry and toxicology groups. I went to toxicology for several years, then I had my own MS unit, and then I came back to drug chemistry. They needed people because of the caseload. They're looking for a strong science degree and a chemistry degree is favorable. If you want to work in DNA, for example, you really need to have microbiology, genetics, and statistics, biochemistry, so you need to beef up the chemistry degree with those courses. In today's market, an MS is preferable and we do hire PhDs, which were unheard of in forensics, so we have several on staff now. The PhD will offer the most in terms of advancement.

What is your typical day like?
Hectic. This business is unfortunately much more work than people. We can get equipment but to get the people we need to effectively handle the workload is limited. Lately, we've been putting a lot of fires out. We get calls from the District Attorney (DA) about cases that are going to court and there's a backlog so the evidence may or may not have been worked on. You need to be able to manage your time-we're always working on a timeline. You need to be able to communicate with the DA about any delays and negotiate adjustments to the timeline because the volume of work is becoming more prevalent. Now in an ideal lab, that shouldn't be the case but the theme in this business is triage and setting priorities.

What do you like about your job? What don't you like?
I like being able to use science to help solve crimes, helping the public, the interface of chemistry with the legal system. Testifying in court can be nerve-wracking but that's why I'm here doing the work I do. All the quality control and quality assurance procedures insure accurate results based on sound scientific principles. The tests used must also be acceptable in a court of law. The courtroom system is the interesting part that gets you out of the laboratory.

What I don't like is the pressure of working in an environment where the majority of the cases are needed ASAP. I think you really have to be focused on what's important and quality should be (and is) Job #1. Convincing a mostly nonscientist administration that the solution to the backlog is to hire more people, rather than to increase the analyst's caseload, is not considered favorably. We're working on evidence that affects people's lives.

What have been your most interesting projects or opportunities?
The thing that I'm most happy about is integrating MS into this lab pretty early on (early 1970s). Most of the methods that are continually evolving were using MS to help solve analytical problems. I've integrated many methods from other labs to help solve crimes. I've used it to help look for drugs or poisons in biological systems. Looking into things that have been tampered with such as food or beverages. I've used it for powders and liquids, volatile components in fire debris and gas analysis.

Have you had any Perry Mason moments?
One time I had worked on a case where someone was found dead because a relative had spiked his alcoholic drink with Diazinon, which you use to kill grubs. They couldn't figure out how he had died. I had worked on organophosphates at the medical college, and when I got the GC/MS results on the stomach contents I recognized the spectra was that of Diazinon, an organophosphate. Tests on the drink also showed Diazinon was present.

When you get tampering cases, like Tylenol, we get thousands of reports from people who think their medicines have been tampered with. In some instances, their suspicions have been right. Most of the time, unfortunately, it doesn't work out that way. Sometimes I can tell by what's in the news what we'll get in the lab.

If you had it all to do over again, what would you do differently about your career?
I would have gotten my PhD. I had an opportunity at the medical college to get a PHD in Toxicology. It would have opened up a lot more doors for me and I would probably have achieved my career goal. This type of job doesn't lend itself to research. Unless you get in a very specialized type job working for the Drug Enforcement Agency or the FBI Academy in Quantico, you're probably not getting into a research environment. Here, it's a lot of bench work.

Who are your role models?
No forensic scientists but those in MS like Dr. Fred McLafferty at Cornell, Dr. Klaus Biemann at MIT, and Dr. Rodger Foltz at Center for Human Toxicology at the University of Utah. Foltz was the one who looked for drugs in biological samples-like marijuana in blood and urine samples. He was more applied; he did a lot of research on the application of MS techniques to measure drugs and related compounds in biological specimens.

What do you do when you're not at work?
Iski, play volleyball, I used to do boating, and am just learning to play golf.

What is the most rewarding thing about what you do?
Public service: the opportunity to help put some criminals away with good sound science and also to help exonerate those innocently accused of a crime. I look at it as an interesting profession that helps get people involved in science. Through my involvement with ACS and a shadow program we have here, I can encourage people to consider science as a career and there are lots of interesting opportunities.

What advice do you have for others who want a job like yours?
Get a good chemistry background and spice it up with some biological, biochemistry, and statistics. Try to do an internship in one of the crime labs, take a look at the profession more closely to see if it's what you really want to do. This is a specialized career with specialized requirements.

One other thing I will say is to be careful about the lifestyle choices you make; we do background checks on applicants here. It's not the credentials that keep them from getting hired it's the background; choices can come back to haunt you. We also do lie detector tests and some people who pass the background have had trouble here. Pure science won't just get you through the door.

Enacted in 1973, New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws are among the harshest mandatory minimum sentencing schemes in the nation because of the small amount of drugs needed to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. These laws were enacted when heroin addiction was at one of its peaks. Governor Nelson Rockefeller's personal solution to the drug problem was to require such long prison sentences that no one would dare use them. The penalties apply without regard to the circumstances of the offense or the individual's character or background-whether the person is a first time or repeat offender.

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