By Stuart A. K. Kurtz, M.S., D-ABFT-FT
Forensic science has always been the field I wanted to work in. I made my parents buy me a book at the Scholastic Book Fair in 3rd grade on forensic science. From there, I started looking at what areas interested me the most. I also loved chemistry so decided I would work as a drug chemist working with seized materials. While at IUPUI for grad school, I took a class with Kevin Shanks on designer drugs and knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Forensic toxicology combines many different aspects but the one that sticks out to me the most is science communication. I think that is the most impactful part of what I do. I have to be able to explain how we got the results including all steps from receiving a case, the review and release of the case, and, most importantly, what the results mean and don’t mean. Lawyers, juries, families, investigators, coroners, medical examiners, and pathologists all have very different levels of understanding when it comes to forensic toxicology. I have to be able to cater my explanations to each person and make sure that I am meeting them where they are in terms of their understanding.
Being able to talk to families and help them understand is my favorite part even if it is difficult at times to talk to someone experiencing tragedy. It can be as important to explain what something doesn’t mean as it is to explain what it does mean. Sometimes a family wants to pursue certain testing because they think it will give them the answers they need. I explain as well as I can the reasons for and against pursuing the testing. We never want to practice toxicology in a vacuum so I make sure to explain whether I can or cannot interpret the results and why. Ultimately, I want the results to be able to provide information that leads to the best closure possible for families.
Chief Deputy Coroner Alfarena McGinty of the Marion County IN Coroner’s Office came and gave a very moving presentation on her experiences and how that affects her daily work. She says, “We speak for the dead but we serve the survivors.” I say, “Behind every case there is a person. Behind every person there is a family.” Both of these mantras get at the fact that the families are central to how she and I go about our days in our respective jobs. While we arrived at those mantras separately, we have similar experiences that lead us there.
An old colleague of our Lab Director and Chief Toxicologist Dr. Behonick said to him “Someone has to make sense out of all this mess.” My goal is to help gather information that can be used to help the survivors make sense of the mess. No one person can clean up the mess but I can do my best to help others understand it.