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Guns, Drugs and Science

bell

Questions by Jake Stump
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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Firing pistols and burning drugs. That's another day at the office for WVU Chemistry Professor Suzanne Bell, who says her research and teaching workload is 50 percent guns and 50 percent drugs. Before coming to WVU in 2003, she spent several years working in police crime labs real-world experience she's bestowed upon students who walk onto campus with a whole different view of forensic science shaped by the entertainment industry. Here, Bell sets us straight.

One of the questions you must get asked often is, “How realistic are shows like ‘CSI: Crime Scene Investigation’ and ‘NCIS?’” 

The procedures and instruments shown are often the same as used in forensic labs, but the time and labor involved are not accurately depicted. It is dramatic license for certain, but that isn’t a criticism. The positive portrayal of science as a tool for social good inspires students to consider forensic science careers. As a STEM educator, I find that very encouraging. Besides, my interest in the field was kindled by a show called “Quincy,” which dates me right there. 

I read that you once helped out on an episode of ‘CSI.’

I did. There was an episode in which a body was solidified in asphalt and the producers asked how I would recover it. Since it would be essential to minimize damage to the body, I suggested that Grissom (the character in the series) should drill holes into the tar and fill them with liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen vaporizes quickly and causes the tar casing to crack and fall away without causing much damage to the body. They ended up using this idea in the show.

You’re studying ways to develop new gunshot residue tests. Can you explain the current industry standard and the need for an alternative method?

The current method for detecting gunshot residue uses scanning electron microscopy coupled to X-ray spectroscopy. When a weapon is fired, compounds in the primer vaporize and condense into tiny particulates (a few microns in size) that contain metals such as barium, antimony and lead. There are no technical problems with this method; rather the concern is the relative value of finding gunshot residue coupled to newer lead-free primer compositions. These factors are driving interest in new methods. 

Tell me about your classroom lab. I hear it’s a place where the fun never stops. 

It stops when I give the mid-term and final, but other than that, I hope the students enjoy it. Forensic analytical chemistry is applied chemistry. I have analyzed everything from a capsule of powder thought to contain cyanide to candy bars. I want students to apply what they know to this kind of sample. Most recently, students analyzed drugs in peanut butter cups and gummies. These labs are about building confidence in a realistic scenario. Students have studied and understand the fundamentals of organic and analytical chemistry and have done laboratories before, but exercises like these show them realistic applications of integrated skills.

What are the main takeaways that you want your students to learn regarding drugs?

Drugs of abuse are somewhat unique in forensic science in that the crimes associated with them are typically socially defined. For example, 10 years ago marijuana was illegal in all states. Compare this to crimes such as homicide and sexual assault, which everyone agrees are intrinsically wrong. Addiction is also an issue and it drives behaviors. The current opiate epidemic is clear evidence of this. As a forensic scientist, our responsibility is clear — perform the analytical chemistry needed to identify drugs, poisons and metabolites as the case requires. However, as students and citizens, it is important to understand the larger context and to add our voices to the discussion. 

So what happens once the trigger of a gun is pulled?

Pulling the trigger causes the firing pin to strike the primer, which is a small disc in the center of the ammunition cartridge. The force of this impact ignites low explosives in the primer such as barium nitrate, lead styphnate, and antimony sulfide. Small holes in the primer allow the flames to ignite the propellant in the cartridge. The hot expanding gases generate the force needed to accelerate the bullet down the barrel and downrange toward the target. The process converts the chemical energy in the cartridge into kinetic energy of the bullet. It also generates a wealth of chemical and physical evidence including GSR, organic residues and markings on the bullet, cartridge case and primer.  

Before teaching, you worked in a crime lab out in New Mexico. 

My first job was as a forensic chemist with the New Mexico State Police. One misconception about our field is that our job is to “get the bad guy.” However, the job of the forensic scientist is to analyze the evidence and add it to the pool of evidence in the case.

Speaking of New Mexico – and our earlier conversation about TV shows – how accurate is "Breaking Bad" in its portrayal of the meth trade out there?

Methamphetamine labs used to be a huge issue nationwide. Sadly, it is very easy to make; chemistry skills are not as critical as for other drugs. The problem has been greatly reduced by limiting access to the precursors needed such as pseudoephedrine. It still exists but has been eclipsed by other problems like novel synthetics and opiates. As for the New Mexico setting, I am confident that the New Mexico State Police would have nailed Walter White before the third episode!

The people producing these drugs in real life are like Walter White's character, correct? They're skilled and meticulous chemists. They use math and science. Your average Johnny isn't hanging out in his basement randomly throwing ingredients together. 

Actually people like Johnny are. Directions are easy to find on the internet and abusers can make small doses, albeit of dubious quality. It would be like eating something you make in organic chemistry lab. Certainly, distributors are more organized and rely on production-scale chemistry, but one of the reasons meth is such a problem is how easy it is to make. As noted above, limiting access to the starting ingredients has been a big help in shutting down small operations.  

What makes designer drugs much more dangerous than, say, marijuana and drugs that are not synthetic?

To paraphrase Paracelsus, “the dose makes the poison.” Being synthetic does not mean a drug will be more or less potent than a plant-derived drug such as cocaine (extracted from cocoa leaves), heroin (easily made from morphine extracted from opium), or THC (from marijuana). However, synthetic versions are often designed to be more potent to generate the same “high” with smaller amounts. The less needed, the more money to be made. Also, synthetic drugs can contain toxic by-products and residuals. 

You're an advocate for women in science. Would you say there's a misconception that forensics is a male-dominated arena? 

Outside the discipline, yes. The balance of students in the Department of Forensic and Investigative Science is now about 75 percent female. Most of my PhD graduates and students are women. When I started in the field, I was the second woman hired by the New Mexico State Police. Things have really changed. In most forensic labs, the staff is well over 50 percent female. My thought is that women see a career in forensic science as combining science with a sense of service but as a discipline, we still are trying to understand the shift. However, the glass ceiling still remains at the managerial levels, although this too seems to be shifting.