Friday, 15 May 2015

Careers In Chemistry: Forensic Science

Hi again, everyone! Now we're through all of our unit posts, it is time to take a look at what options are out there for those interested in pursuing chemistry as a career. Hopefully the posts on this blog and all the others, have inspired you to realize how multi-faceted chemistry is and how much behind the scenes work it plays in our daily lives. So unsurprisingly, there are a lot of jobs out there concerning chemistry! Today we're going to highlight forensic scientists - specifically forensic chemists - and why their job is awesome!

Read on to find out WHAT forensic science is, WHO is doing it, WHY it's an awesome chemistry career, HOW to get a job doing it, and WHERE to study.

So what is forensic science? Forensic science is the study and analysis of physical evidence and samples to help law enforcement solve crimes. Using a variety of techniques and processes, forensic chemists unravel and reconstruct what actually happened at a crime scene based on evidence provided. A well trained, advanced forensic chemist should be able to determine the composition and nature of materials, predict the source, and match sample to sample. Forensic science encompasses organic and inorganic analysis, toxicology, arson investigation, and serology. Most of the time, samples are not handed over as pure substances, but rather often mixed in with dirt or other gross stuff. One of the toughest and most exciting parts of forensic science is separating out these individual components and figuring out what went where (Massey, 2009). Pretty cool, huh?

Who are the notable players in the field of forensic science? Any Canadians up in there? Professor Tracy Rogers, director of the forensic science program at the University of Toronto, is one of the leading forensic scientists in the world. She is the lead forensic anthropologist at the Pickton pig farm in B.C, the largest crime site in Canada and also worked on the Tim Bosma mystery case. She works on the identification of unknown skeletal remains, skeletal sex determination, skeletal techniques for assessing the ancestry/biogeographical origin of the deceased, and the positive identification of decomposing human remains. She also researches the application of new technologies to the analysis of outdoor crime scenes and hidden graves (University of Toronto, 2012).

Why is the world of forensic science a good career option for those interested in chemistry? Forensic science encompasses many scientific disciplines, including chemistry, biology, physics, and anthropology. It's a study that demands excellence, intelligence and innovation (Maclean's, 2011). It's rigorous and demanding work, for sure, but extremely rewarding. You're literally helping to catch criminals and solve major crimes! For example, some of Dr. Tracy Roger's work at the Pickton pig farm involved 'trawling' for remains over a 14 hectare site and a 16 hectare, sorting out human bones from animal, those relevant to the case, etc...She went in looking for around 69 sets of bones! Then she had to distinguish between whose bones were belonged to which individual. It can be very grim or even disgusting to some people, when dealing with cadavers or decomposing organisms. But how rewarding would it be, returning bones to their rightful owners, giving families back their children? You may even find yourself applying some of the lessons we learned in this course; qualitative analysis comes to mind for sure - figuring out what components are in a substance.

How do you get a job in the field of forensic science? Interestingly, TV shows such as Bones and CSI have popularized the once considered 'gruesome' profession. This means fierce competition for positions. Typically, forensic scientists will work in tandem with a government agency such as CSIS or the FBI, or in an independent forensic lab, in a medical examiner's office, hospitals, or teach at universities or colleges. Most institutions require at least a masters degree, but to teach or direct at a crime site, a doctorate is required. The typical career path of a forensic scientists is as follows:
- B.SC in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, or any other science discipline
* a degree in forensic science is not necessarily required, but would be an asset
- A Master's science degree
- A PhD in a certain discipline of science
All of these steps are not necessary for all jobs, but to reach the highest pay level and most responsibility it is recommended.

Finally, where should you study? Is there some kind of accredited school on how to be a dead people doctor? The short answer, is NOPE! As stated above, a degree in forensic science is not necessarily required, though a strong science background is. Pretty much every university in Canada offers a myriad of cool undergrad science courses and any one of those would be great. For example, doing your Bachelor of Science in Microbiology at Carleton, or your Bachelor of Science in Organic Chemistry at Queens...there are plenty of options. If you want a more specific look at forensic science, there are a few faculties that offer a dedicated program. University of Toronto, for example, is one of the few. They offer courses at the undergrad, masters, and post doctorate level.

Hopefully this post educated you on the field of forensic science! Who knows, maybe you two will experience some chemistry (haha). I hope you enjoyed reading through some of my posts on our curriculum this year, and thank you for getting through it with me. I encourage you to continue on the science path to post secondary and even further!

Good luck out there, kiddos!

Friday, 8 May 2015

Unit 5: Go Local...or Maybe Not?

In Unit 5 of our Gr. 11 chemistry course we explored gases and atmospheric chemistry. We learned about the dangers an excess of carbon dioxide has on our environment. We are the main producers of carbon dioxide, which is one of the main contributors to climate change.

The local food movement has really taken off in the past 10 or so years. It's claimed benefits are driving health and environmentally conscious consumers away from the aisles of their local Loblaws and down the gravelly paths of their neighbourhood Farmer's Market. An Iowa based study, led by Dr. Rich Pirog, found that, on average, produce travelled about 1,500 miles before reaching dinner plates. Conversely, locally sourced food was found to typically travel less than 50 miles from farm to table (Pirog, 2008). Really, the concept of 'eating local' seems pretty common sense. Produce is fresher and riper, local farms are supported, gas emissions from transportation are drastically reduced, and everyone is happier. In fact, a Canadian study estimated that replacing imported food with locally grown/produced items would save nearly 50,000 tons of transport related carbon dioxide emissions - or taking over 15,000 cars off the road for good (World Watch Institute, 2013).

But WHAT is actually local food? Are green peppers grown in Kingston local to us in Ottawa? They're a lot closer than California, that's for sure - but what does that mean? This is one issue with trying to figure out whether or not the green food movement actually is greener - there is no long standing definition of what local food really is. Since the publishing of the '100 Mile Diet' and other such books, 100 miles or just over 150 km is seen as the typical boundary. "A 100-mile radius is large enough to reach beyond a big city and small enough to truly feel local. And it rolls of the tongue much more easily than the 160-kilometer diet" (Alisa Smith, 2009). This seems like a perfectly valid way to think about local food, but it doesn't have much to do with environmental costs and benefits.

Food miles, in some cases, don't actually determine how environmentally friendly the product may be. For example, trains are 10 times more efficient at transporting cargo than freight trucks. So eating potatoes from 100 miles away transporting by truck, or eating potatoes from 1000 miles away transporting by train have pretty much the same amount of emissions. It's also important to note how a foods are grown and what impacts that process may have. Swedes, in fact, are better off eating tomatoes grown in Spain than down the street, because Spanish tomatoes are grown in open air fields, while their own must be grown in fossil fuel heated greenhouses (Annika Carlsson-Kanyama, 2012).

Or maybe not? 

To get a true, comprehensive scope of the environmental impacts caused by our food system, you have to track the greenhouse gas emissions through all phases of the food's production, transportation and consumption. This method was created by two scientists, Weber and Matthews, from Carnegie Mellon University, who coined the process 'life cycle analysis'. They weaved together data from environmental agencies, trucking call sheets, and a variety of other US government sources to discover that the actual transportation accounts for only 11% of the total emissions. The two found that the most emissions actually occur before the food even leaves the 'farm' gate - over 83% of emissions occur from agricultural production (Drs. Weber and Matthews, 2009)!

Another clear pattern that emerges, according to Dr. Garnett from MIT, is that the type of food in question can have a big impact. In fact, the emissions generating from the meat and dairy industries account for more 53% of all food related emissions worldwide (World Watch Institute, 2012) and much more than all transport emissions globally. "Broadly speaking, eating fewer meat and dairy products and consuming more plant foods in their place is probably the single most helpful behavioural shift one can make to reduce food-related greenhouse gas emissions" says Garnett. Weber and Matthews point out that even if food miles were reduced to 0 - an almost impossible goal, by the way - this would only reduce emissions by 5 - 11%, but replacing red meat and dairy with fish, eggs, or even chicken one day a week   is the equivalent of saving 760 miles of driving emissions. Even better, replacing meat or dairy with veggies one night a week would be like driving 1, 160 miles less. Wow!

Now, all of that said, let's return to this concept of 'eating local'. What we didn't discuss earlier are some un-food mile related benefits that locavore eating can bring about. Local foods are often seasonal and much less processed, both of which are associated with lower green house gas emissions than conventional foods. Local foods found at farmer's markets or from CSAs are also often organic, which typical is greener, as the emissions produced by the creation, transportation and application of chemical fertilizers are eliminated. Organic food also has some other benefits; less use of toxic anti-pesticides and other chemicals is much easier on ecosystems and encourages greater biodiversity, organic fields require less irrigation (normally). Additionally, local farmers are typically smaller scale and can therefore adopt more sustainable practices to meet market need (Wolfe, 2003). Let's not forget about the relationships and community eating local can foster either - knowing where you food is coming from and meeting the grower face to face is quite remarkable.

As local food is so often discussed only in terms of it's mileage, we tend to forget about it's other benefits - but as Gail Feenstra says (a food analyst at the University of California), a food's carbon footprint "can't be the only measuring stick of environmental sustainability". According to local food advocate Sage Winn, eating local is about "how those [foods] were farmed, how the farm workers were treated" - a sprawling collection of ecological, societal and economic factors combine to form true sustainability (Winn, 2003).

In my opinion, eating local is a pretty cool thing to do. Going vegetarian or vegan, even one night or two a week, is also a fabulous option for reducing your carbon footprint. My Mom and I actually shop at our local farmer's market every Sunday morning - for the yummy foods, the sense of community, and honestly, how much fun it is! As Canadians, going local is a little harder in the winter, when our only 'local' produce are pretty much potatoes and last season's apples!


1. Would you go local? Why or why not?

2. What's your opinion on food miles? Do YOU think they're important?

3. Explain why carbon dioxide emissions are so bad for the environment? Carbon dioxide seems pretty normal, right?