More women examine a career in forensic science

ByABC News
August 16, 2008, 5:54 AM

RICHMOND, Va. -- Kelly Johnson snips pieces from a blood-stained, blue-striped shirt, then swabs the neck and armpits for sweat. Down the hall, Samantha Glass watches as a chemical reaction reveals a fingerprint on a juice bottle.

In the state's Eastern lab, Julie Price fires a .45-caliber pistol into a long metal water tank.

Unlike their counterparts on TV, they're not wearing low-cut shirts or stiletto heels, and their hair and makeup aren't always perfect. These are the real women of forensic science, and there are plenty of them.

An Associated Press review of accredited forensic science programs in the United States found about 75% of graduates are women, an increase from about 64% in 2000.

Women say they were drawn to forensic science by strong role models, a desire to help people and stability that's often lacking in other scientific careers.

Those in the field estimate that the nation's forensic labs are at least 60% female. At Virginia's Department of Forensic Science, 36 of 47 scientists hired since 2005 were women.

"I used to tell people when I first came that we considered forensic science Boys Town, but now it's more like a girls world," said Sylvia Buffington-Lester, 58, a supervisor in the latent print division who was the only woman in that division when she started in 1987.

West Virginia University professor Max Houck, chairman of a committee that accredits the field's academic programs, is researching what draws women to the sometimes gruesome world of forensics.

Among other factors, he cites the "CSI effect," saying the popular CBS show and its spinoffs were the first to show a proportional number of women in leading scientific roles. Other popular shows featuring female forensic investigators, including Bones and Crossing Jordan, have followed.

"I have to think that there's got to be some relationship between the roles that are represented on TV and the way women see what's possible for them as a career," Houck said.

Forensic scientists say the attention from the shows has brought more people into the field, even if they are initially drawn to the glamorous work portrayed on television. Even while poking at dead bodies, the female scientists on shows like "CSI: Miami" often don revealing blouses and always have makeup jobs fresh out of a beauty salon.