When Anna Wilson’s cell phone rings, there’s usually a dead body involved.
No matter if she’s in the shower or at the movies, she’s out the door in a matter of minutes, headed for the Washington State Patrol forensics lab at the edge of the Eastern Washington University campus. There she changes into lightweight boots, black pants, and a polo shirt emblazoned with “WSP CRIME SCENE” across the back. A quick check of supplies—gloves, gel lifts, camera cards, detection chemicals, evidence packaging, and the like—and the van is ready. Then she and a similarly clad coworker enter the address into a GPS unit, buckle up, and hit the road.
“It’s not like the TV show,” she explains with a smile and a shake of her head. “For one thing, you never see Greg write anything down.” Wilson and her fellow Crime Scene Response Team colleagues are constantly taking notes, sketching what they see, and cataloging important details. It’s “a lot of looking with your eyes,” and then applying scientific methods to correlate what is known with what can be observed. For example, spines fanning out from a drop of dried blood show the drop was struck by an object while it was still wet; the length of the spines can help determine the amount of force used.
As a WSU undergraduate, Wilson watched the first season of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation along with 17 million other television viewers. The show exploded in popularity after the September 11 attacks. The franchise has since expanded from Las Vegas to Miami and New York and had crossover storylines with shows like Without a Trace and Cold Case. It was an entertaining diversion, but “forensic scientist” wasn’t anywhere on Wilson’s career list. She’d been raising and showing rabbits with 4-H since sixth grade and had her mind set on becoming a wildlife biologist.
Wilson’s organized and confident nature helped her achieve a great deal in her four years at college: a double major in biology and Spanish, treasurer of the wildlife biology club, a semester in Ecuador studying comparative ecology, and plenty of time in the research lab. She prepared DNA primers for milkweed as a sophomore and by her senior year had advanced to sequencing the DNA of New Zealand mud snails in Mark Dybdahl’s evolutionary ecology lab.
Spring semester of 2004, her last at WSU, would prove pivotal. A friend invited her to a forensics club meeting. The topic? Decomposing pig carcasses. Not your average evening in the lab, she thought, so she went along. It wasn’t hands-on training, just discussion, but toward the end of the meeting, the club’s faculty advisor, entomologist Bethany Marshall, told them of an upcoming forensics internship with the WSP in Olympia. Wilson didn’t yet have a job after graduation, so she “applied on a whim” and was accepted.
They put her to work creating a database of fiber characteristics that could be used to identify criminal evidence. “I immediately felt comfortable,” she says recalling the summer-long assignment. She spent her days carefully cutting cross-sections, mounting samples, noting color options and manufacturer details, and collecting information on hundreds of different fibers. By the time it was over, her thoroughness and attention to detail earned her a WSP Chief’s Coin for volunteer service, and Wilson was hooked on forensics. “I thought I had no chance of getting hired,” she confessed to a group of WSU students during a recent visit to campus, “but thought I might as well go through the steps and see where it went.” Many applicants do not have the required 20 hours of chemistry classes or simply can’t pass the three-hour knowledge test. Then there’s an intensive interview phase, a background check, and finally a polygraph test.
For the first two years, she worked exclusively in the sparkling clean forensics lab in Cheney, analyzing evidence from cars to carpets to cigarette butts, and processing DNA from most every type of body fluid. Once she had enough experience handling complex cases, she asked to join the Crime Scene Response Team. Four years later, she still works in the lab during the week, but for one week every month she’s on call for crime scene processing anywhere from Omak to Pullman.
She no longer watches CSI, but understands all too well how popular television can affect public perception. While she does use the same blue luminol spray as the CSI technicians to locate traces of blood, it takes her days, sometimes weeks, using specific scientific protocols to generate valid DNA results. And you won’t find her or any of her colleagues interviewing witnesses—any such conversations could taint the objectivity of their reports in a court of law.
Wilson believes that being involved from the beginning of a criminal case “makes you a better scientist. You get to see the case as a whole, so now you’re thinking not just of DNA, but you’re thinking about chemistry, about trace, you’re thinking about impressions and latent prints and anything that might aid in the investigation.” It can be both exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.
Forensic science is a staple of the modern judicial system, and she values her role in providing scientific analysis to people on both sides of a criminal investigation so they can make good decisions based on facts. Wilson also recently co-founded the Inland Empire Forensic Science Society in Cheney and helps organize tours of the lab as well as workshops and demonstrations with hopes of inspiring future forensic scientists.