CSI in training
August 8, 2005 6:05 PM   Subscribe

Want to learn to be a CSI? It's the U.S. government's multimedia website to train police and evidence recovery personnel. You can try the tests - the advanced one will tell you if you convicted the accused or not. Pretty slick for Uncle Sam.
posted by birdsquared (22 comments total)
Sounds cool, but can't get this to work on Safari or IE-Mac.
posted by miss tea at 6:23 PM on August 8, 2005

From what I hear, being an actual CSI involves all sorts of science and crap, and you almost never get to harrass a suspect or drive a Humvie. Also, apparently, crime scenes are usually a lot more messy than they suggest on television, with blood and brains and viscera everywhere.

Not that most CSIs ever see that. They usually only get little swabs of cotton that they put through centerfuges. But, I suppose, they could always listen to some sweet techno music while the test tubes oscillate.
posted by maxsparber at 6:26 PM on August 8, 2005

From what I hear, being an actual CSI involves all sorts of science and crap

Not even that much science, really. Gels and reverse PCR machines, gas chromatographs, super glue, etc. For all the television show's romanticism of 'science,' if you look at what they're doing (or what actually happens in most investigations), it really entails very little besides technicians' work.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 6:47 PM on August 8, 2005

Well, then I'm in. Gels!
posted by maxsparber at 6:50 PM on August 8, 2005

All those hours of watching procedural crime dramas...and I only scored a 16 percent.
posted by jrossi4r at 7:11 PM on August 8, 2005

Dr_Johnson: While most evidence recovery people do tend to do a lot of straightforward procedural tasks, the analysis of results can become quite challenging - especially when it is a mixed profile of 2 or more individuals. Also, what's a "reverse PCR" machine? All the reports I get from the lab say they use PCR, not "reverse PCR".

maxsparber: I am involved in one case where the one of the CSIs (actually "Forensic Lab technicians" here in Canada) did get called out to the scene of the murder to assist the police in evidence recovery techniques.
posted by birdsquared at 7:38 PM on August 8, 2005

Did they drive a Humvee?
posted by maxsparber at 7:43 PM on August 8, 2005

sorry. Should read 'PCR' machine a la Leroy Hood and Caltech crowd. PCR is already a reversing process.

But the machine itself is largely uncomplicated, and while I concede that the analysis of results can get complicated, I hesitate to call this 'science' in any straightforeward sense. It uses tools derived from science, but the introduction of science into forensics is largely a new phenomenon, and while the move towards systematically tested hypotheses is laudable, the way in which the idea of a 'science of forensics is bandied around gives the impression that current forensic methods are far more certain than they actually are.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 7:59 PM on August 8, 2005

(a reverse PCR machine would be turning a lot of DNA back into a little, I suppose. Hardly useful).
posted by Dr_Johnson at 8:00 PM on August 8, 2005

maxsparber: No

Dr_Johnson: Umm, I'm still a little confused - what do you mean by "PCR is already a reversing process."? Of course, each base sequence gets reversed for each spliced strand, but then those in turn get reversed, so that at the end, you have a multitude of the original base pair sequence.

By no means do I suggest that the majority of a CSI's work isn't tedium (not different from many 'real' scientists' work), but in order to testify about what a certain reaction (such as "Fast Blue", Hemostix or PSA) means, they should be scientists. Also, certain forensic methods are pretty certain - especially an unambiguous DNA profile. What that 'certainty' means in the context of a legal case can differ - but I'd much rather have a DNA "match" than a positive photo line-up selection, or a fingerprint.
posted by birdsquared at 8:40 PM on August 8, 2005

"reverse PCR"

aka - reverse transcriptase polycyclic chain reaction.

aka - turning RNA into double-stranded DNA so that it can be size-selected and visualized on an agarose gel using ethidium bromide, that intercalate with dsDNA and fluoreces under UV light.

I'd suspect that it's usually PCR using RAPD or a similar proceedure to generate DNA 'fingerprints' (PCR primers to amplify segments of DNA that's very heterogeneous within a population, then using various restriction endonuclease enzymes [proteins] that cut at certain DNA sequences to get bits of DNA; the different pattern of DNA sizes can be pretty unique 'fingerprints' -) I'm not sure what the standard that law enforcement used to actually fingerprint DNA, though.

Yes, to reiterate, CSI "science" stuff is very much technician level work. I've trained (a) Starbucks barista to do more technical work.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 8:55 PM on August 8, 2005

birdsquared - I guess it depends on what you mean by "scientist."

A lot of technicians, especially in repetitive, menial, and low-paying positions only need a couple-year diploma from a tech school to be certified to run the tests.

These things used to take soooo much time and effort, but because there's a market for it (well, the market is ancilliary - the techniques are so useful for actual research that these things have become mainstream enough that it's worthwhile to develop "kits" or otherwise easy-to-use ... well, kits) these techniques have been made accessible to the non-"scientific."

The examples that you used? All kits. A 12 year old can do the tests and make interpretations. In fact, it'd be an awesome science fair project, if it wasn't so common.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 9:00 PM on August 8, 2005

My sister just started her job in the crime lab last week as a non-scientist with a criminal justice MS. She had this to say:
on CSI, you will see the same character go from processing latent prints to doing a mass spectrometer analysis of a liquid to spinning out DNA

in the state crime lab, there is no such thing as a generalist. if you do DNA analysis, you only do DNA analysis. you do it all day long. chemistry and biology, for example, are totally different departments.

on CSI, you can get DNA run in about 10 minutes.

in the state crime lab, we have a DNA backlog that stretches back about three years. some current cases can take priority, but that just means it will be done in weeks instead of months.

on CSI, the people get to drive hummers to crime scenes.

in the state crime lab, our crime scene service personnel drive ford focuses.

on CSI, the crime lab is cutting edge with the latest technology in a huge beautiful building that is modern and spacious.

in the state crime lab, we are cramped into an old converted elementary school and have to beg borrow and steal to fund new equipment. until this week they were still using an old fish tank turned upside-down to fume superglue in. we have up to four people sharing a desk and not enough computers to go around. one of our satellite sites is in a building that just got condemned by the state.

So all in all, it ain't quite CSI, but it's still a cool and interesting place to work.
posted by jessamyn at 9:29 PM on August 8, 2005

ain't none of um look like portia di rossi neither
posted by raaka at 9:35 PM on August 8, 2005

jessamyn, those would be Ford Foci.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:00 PM on August 8, 2005

PurplePorpoise: According to the RCMP site, the minimum requirement is 3 years for the technologist positions, but I've only met B.Sc. or M.Sc. grads on the job. A 12 year old may be able to use the kits, and even understand the chemical or biological reactions, but it's unlikely that a court would be willing to accept expert testimony from them. As for the rote of many of the procedures, the Vancouver RCMP lab now has a robot to help speed things up (mostly to deal with the thousands of DNA samples from the Pickton serial murder case).
posted by birdsquared at 10:14 PM on August 8, 2005

those would be Ford Foci

posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:46 PM on August 8, 2005

on CSI, the crime lab is cutting edge with the latest technology in a huge beautiful building that is modern and spacious.

I remember once CSI Miami episode where they had that famous designer chair worth about $700 in the interrogation room. And not one, but three of them! And the table looked very expensive too. And so, so clean, a reflective surface with not even a smear on it. And the wall was a big floor-to-ceiling window looking on to the sea... It was like a showroom. I don't believe even Miami Vice was ever that unrealistic. It's the Bruckheimer touch.
posted by funambulist at 1:10 AM on August 9, 2005

purpleporpoise: I think you mean polymerase, not polycyclic.
An aside: rtPCR is a nice method to amplify messenger RNAs to generate DNA libraries of expressed genes, too.
posted by gsb at 2:30 AM on August 9, 2005

Funny, some lab colleagues and I were talking about CSI yesterday, and how on one episode they said they'd have to ELISA to analyze a sample. They pronounced it 'a-lissa.' We got a few snickers out of it, us nerds.
posted by greatgefilte at 6:16 AM on August 9, 2005

It's the show that most abuses the idea that you can take a grainy photograph or video, zoom in as much as you like, and somehow magically enhance the image. Usualky, all you need to do is ask "Can you enhance that?"
posted by maxsparber at 9:07 AM on August 9, 2005

It works because they have the super secret PhotoShop FBI which can enhance a human face out of eight pixels in the reflection in an eye on a security video camera.
posted by Mitheral at 10:06 AM on August 9, 2005

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