This month, NJIT’s forensic science program welcomed David Fisher — an expert criminalist previously with New York City’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) — to its faculty ranks.
The announcement sees Fisher appointed as the university’s first-ever “Professor of Practice in Forensic Science” — a position expected to play a leading role in educating the program’s students in current lab techniques and crime scene investigation methods used by active forensic science professionals today.
A specialist in forensic biology, Fisher has provided over 40 testimonies as an expert witness in New York State’s Supreme Court and grand jury proceedings. Fisher joins students in NJIT labs and classrooms after 17 years with New York City’s OCME, where he was involved in everything from training forensic scientists and supervising forensic R&D, to collaborating with the NYPD on crime scene investigations and helping identify victims of 9/11.
Here, in the first of a two-part series, we sit down with Fisher to discuss his new role in NJIT’s forensic science program, as well as some of his background, including memorable casework and field experiences over the course of nearly two decades as a criminalist in New York City.
First, congratulations on the appointment. What has been your initial reaction to your start at NJIT as the university’s first-ever “Professor of Practice in Forensic Science?”
It’s exciting. For some time, I have wanted to give back to the next generation of forensic scientists and offer up my knowledge, skills and experience. The fact that this is a new program was very appealing to me. This role is a unique opportunity to be involved in helping build this new program from the ground-up into something special.
There are a number of forensic science programs nationwide, but not all of them are true forensic science programs. Instead, many are akin to criminal justice programs. What I especially like about NJIT’s program is its heavy emphasis on science, because in today’s field, forensic scientists truly need a strong foundation in chemistry, physics, biology and statistics.
We’ve already reached out to some crime lab directors in the area, and they have been very supportive about teaming up with NJIT to help train our future forensic scientists. With the quality of research and STEM academics at NJIT, as well as opportunities for our students to intern in real crime laboratories, this program has the potential to be one of the top undergraduate forensic science programs in the nation.
It has been quite a road from the start of your career to now. What initially led you into the world of forensic science?
I grew up in a house where forensic science was often talked about. My father, who is retired now, was the former Director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department crime laboratory. Growing up, I always heard fascinating case stories and I got to go to the lab with him on many occasions. I was also a young teenager when I got to observe my first forensic autopsy. That piqued my interest early on.
Later, while I was an undergrad at University of California San Diego and was working at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, I met Francis Crick, Nobel Prize winner who helped first propose the double helix structure of DNA. It was fascinating to meet and speak with him about DNA at that point in my life, and that really helped shape what would become my interest in the field of forensic science. I still remember the license plate on Dr. Crick’s Mercedes-Benz: “A T G C!”
In your 17 years at New York City’s OCME, what were some of the major responsibilities you had as a criminalist and researcher? What was most rewarding?
My expertise has been in forensic DNA typing, which involves analyzing DNA to help identify individuals. My work at OCME’s crime lab included the examination of weapons, clothing, sexual assault kits and all kinds of unusual pieces of evidence; serology, or identifying biological fluids; typing those fluids or skin cells to create DNA profiles; as well as complex mixture analysis and interpretation. When called upon, I appeared in court as an expert witness. I also worked as an adjunct member of OCME’s Forensic Analysis and Reconstruction Unit, which has since been disbanded, where I conducted crime scene investigations in the field to try to reconstruct what may or may not have happened at crime scenes.
Overall, I think the most rewarding aspect about these experiences, and being in this field in general, is knowing that your work plays a significant difference in people’s lives. You may be running a DNA test in the lab, but you know that your work can have a direct effect on either putting a bad person behind bars, acquitting an innocent person, or helping victims find justice or closure; these are things that give you pause and make your day-to-day work even more valuable.
Did you work on any high profile or memorable cases?
Being that the OCME lab was in New York City and is the largest DNA lab in the country, we certainly had our share of cases involving celebrities and notable figures on the national stage. Of course, 9/11 was the most memorable experience. The magnitude of it and having everyone focused on it the way they were is probably something I will remember vividly for the rest of my life.
How did you come to be involved in efforts during 9/11? What do you recall from those times and how did your work and your role change in that situation?
I was commuting from upstate New York as an intern at OCME’s lab at the time, but I never made it into work that day. The authorities had already closed all the bridges and tunnels to the city. It wasn’t until the following day that they began allowing people with certain credentials into Manhattan. I remember showing my identification at the checkpoint into the city that morning and being the only car in the Lincoln Tunnel. It was surreal.
I got my first full-time job offer with OCME soon after that. I was part of a group of forensic scientists that the medical examiner’s office brought on board to ensure that the lab could continue processing routine casework while at the same time identifying victims. That identification process is still going on today.
You have seen the field’s workforce expand first-hand, and have watched new advances come about that have improved things like DNA identification. What has been the biggest change in terms of the way the forensic science field has evolved since you began?
The greatest change I have seen is the speed and sensitivity of the instrumentation used now. We are now able to identify minute samples from a crime scene more effectively, and results that would have taken weeks to obtain a few years ago are now processed more quickly. Trace analysis, analytical chemistry, DNA typing…the speed and sensitivity has increased significantly for all of it.
The other change is that there is a lot more scrutiny put on forensic scientists by the court system. No longer can so-called “experts” testify to their conclusions with phrases like “to within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty.” Now results require statistical weights about the probability or likelihood of a “match.” Judges, and lawyers, are becoming more educated in the forensic sciences, and are more discerning about validated and peer-reviewed science, as opposed to “junk science.”
Finally, what message might you offer new students entering NJIT’s forensic science program, and those who are considering a career in the field?
I think the biggest thing I can tell students is to approach forensic science with a skeptical eye — make sure they question things, act ethically and don’t take anything for granted. Read a lot, not just textbooks, and keep up to date with current events going on within the forensic science community.
There is a lot of interest in the field of forensic science today, which is positive. However, a lot of cases are now brought to the public’s attention by the press, and those accounts are not always accurate. Students thinking about a career in forensic science should be asking critical questions, not only of what they have read or seen about cases in the media, but questions about what they are learning and why things are the way they seem in their own work.
Stay tuned for the concluding segment of our interview with David Fisher, “Dispelling Popular CSI Myths.”