“We work for the FBI because it’s a good thing, because it’s an honorable thing, and because we are helping victims.”
Supervisory Special Agent Ray B. Cook III, Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI Laboratory Division
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the principal federal law enforcement agency of the United States. Its investigative authority is the broadest of all federal law enforcement agencies, and the Bureau’s workforce is similarly large, employing approximately 35,000 people, including both special agents and support professionals, to serve its mission of protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution.
Portrayals of the FBI in the mainstream media have largely focused on case agents in the field, but the Bureau’s forensic professionals deserve their share of the spotlight as some of the best in the business. The FBI Laboratory, also known as the Laboratory Division, staffs approximately 500 scientific experts and special agents and is regarded by many as the premier crime laboratory in the country.
To work in forensics at the FBI is to work at the top of one’s field. This is where the cutting edge of forensic science is practiced, and, in some cases, developed. It’s a mission-driven job where every day is different, and the stakes are no less than human. A monument stands outside the front door of the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia. It reads:
Behind every case is a victim—a man, a woman, or a child—and the people who care for them. We dedicate our efforts and the new FBI Laboratory building to those victims.
“You can’t help but read that each morning when you walk in,” says Rodney Jiggetts, a Toolmarks Examiner at the FBI. “And you have that in the back of your mind when you’re doing examinations and coming to your conclusions: your results could have a huge impact on someone’s life.”
“We work for the FBI because it’s a good thing, because it’s an honorable thing, and because we are helping victims,” says Supervisory Special Agent Ray B. Cook III, Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI Laboratory Division. “That echoes clearly in the work being done at the FBI Laboratory, where we are definitively associating people with crimes for agents back in the field who can then make their cases.”
To learn more about working in forensics at the FBI, read on.
While every special agent in the FBI has some basic training in evidence collection, the agency’s forensic examiners, scientists, and technicians are charged with analyzing that evidence. The FBI’s advanced forensics capabilities run the gamut, including latent print examination; DNA testing and analysis; firearms and toolmark forensics; analysis of skeletal remains and trace evidence such as hair and fiber; chemical analysis and toxicology; questioned document analysis; and analysis of explosive devices.
“We get cases from all over the country, as well as all over the world,” says Heather Seubert, Scientific Analysis Section Chief at the FBI. “We’re continually adapting to what the day is going to bring, whether that’s a priority case coming in, or whether that’s fielding questions from management. One of the nuances that our staff faces is the need for flexibility.”
While there’s no such thing as a typical day for a forensic examiner at the FBI, some structure does exist. An examiner will generally gather any evidence submitted, read about its background, and determine what type of examinations have been requested and should be performed. Utilizing lab equipment, they’ll conduct various analyses, write a report with their conclusions, and issue that report back to the contributor of the evidence. But that description might belie what is actually an extremely varied caseload.
“Every time I go to the evidence locker to get a piece of evidence for a case, it’s something different,” Jiggetts says. “It keeps me on my toes, and it keeps it interesting. You never know what you’re going to get.”
The FBI’s Laboratory Division fosters a powerful camaraderie, bringing together some of the brightest minds to serve a singular mission. There are significant touchpoints between each of the forensic disciplines. Evidence may require multiple forms of analysis: a ransom note, for example, might need latent print analysis, DNA analysis of trace evidence, and cryptanalysis of the writing itself. Overlap also exists between roles and responsibilities, with each FBI employee relying on the same shared standard of excellence.
“Biologists and lab technicians are the eyes and ears of the examiners who testify in court as expert witnesses,” says Stacy Campbell, a Biologist with the FBI’s DNA Casework Unit. “It is especially important that they document any unique characteristics of evidence and/or packaging and pay close attention when processing samples.”
The collaboration between the FBI’s forensic disciplines reaches its peak during large, emergent events, such as when the FBI needs to respond to a terrorist act or a mass shooting. It’s one of the many reminders that work at the FBI is unlike anywhere else.
“You might already be working some evidence on a case, and then an event happens,” Seubert says. “Then we’re gathering resources to put people out the door to deploy across the United States. We’re positioning ourselves here at Quantico to make sure we have the resources on hand to be able to facilitate the receiving of new evidence. We’re putting all our units in a standby position to be able to move that evidence through the laboratory and provide briefings to management. You have to be able to adapt.”
To work at the FBI is to have more than a traditional career: this job begins with an oath. It requires drive, perseverance, and discipline. There are no opportunities for lax moments, making the work both challenging and rewarding.
“Having worked in a forensic DNA laboratory for nearly two decades, I’ve found that the most challenging part of the job is the stress created from knowing that we often only have one shot to process an evidence sample,” Campbell says. “We are routinely required to consume evidence to develop the low levels of DNA that exist on evidence items such as steering wheels, textured surfaces of guns, masks, etc. Knowing that there is no room for error requires focus and diligence.”
Scholastically speaking, the FBI is looking for forensics professionals with a background in the hard sciences, at everything from a bachelor’s to a doctoral level. Criminal justice education is less important; many of those operational quirks can be learned on the job, while the foundations of science cannot. More broadly, forensics professionals at the FBI will need sharp and complex problem-solving skills, and that applies both to the science itself, as well as its surrounding components.
“Advancing technologies have led to the use of robotics in many of our procedures,” Campbell says. “This sometimes presents challenges when a component of a robot breaks, software freezes, or automation doesn’t function as expected. Having problem-solving skills to assess a situation and provide pertinent information to management and/or commercial vendors is paramount.”
At the same time, FBI employees need strong communication skills to present their findings and provide the proper context. Articulation at a high level and a layman level is important, especially if one is expected to testify or contribute to those who do. Communication skills are also critical for navigating colleagues’ personal, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational differences.
“We all have the technical knowledge,” Jiggetts says. “That’s why we’re here. We just have to work together to put that knowledge together. Everyone learns differently, everyone communicates differently, and everyone interacts differently. It’s challenging at times, but the differences bring out the best in everyone.”
The FBI is a unique workplace, and it comes with unique employment requirements. In addition to a competitive resume, aspiring FBI employees must pass a polygraph test, a drug test, and a background check. That sort of examination of one’s personal life might feel intrusive in a more typical employment setting, but for those who want to work at the FBI, it’s all in service of the greater good.
“We provide results that can lead investigators to the truth,” Campbell says. “That could mean providing a DNA profile of a person who wasn’t originally on the investigative radar or exonerating an innocent person suspected of a crime. Knowing that our results are helping aid an investigation is rewarding.”
“If you come to the FBI to be a forensic examiner, that’s your dream job,” Seubert says. “You get to do what you’re passionate about. You can do research. You can conduct casework examinations. You can participate in these science organizations. You can collaborate. It’s the pinnacle for any forensic scientist to be able to come to and spend their career here at the FBI.”
Forensic science is constantly evolving, as is the technology supporting it. But forensics professionals at the FBI aren’t just keeping pace—they’re helping lead the change. The FBI’s forensics professionals are part of key professional organizations, standards committees, scientific journals, and special working groups that help steer the future of forensic science. And they’re also putting new techniques and technologies into practice in the lab.
“Next Generation Sequencing, or NGS, is a technology being developed and implemented for the DNA Casework Unit,” Campbell says. “NGS will simplify the DNA analysis workflow, increase the sensitivity of DNA detection, and lower costs and processing timelines.”
The FBI Laboratory is also pioneering work with 3D technologies, rendering super high-resolution images and conducting virtual comparison microscopy. In the aftermath of the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting, Seubert’s team in the firearms and toolmarks unit were able to implement virtual comparison microscopy to create 3D images of cartridge cases and perform examinations.
More recently, FBI forensics professionals have used first-person gaming software to recreate virtual scenes, incorporating evidence collected from 911 calls and trajectory analysis, to assist in courtroom settings. Collaborating between different forensics units and evidence response teams, the FBI created a virtual 3D scene reconstruction for use as a prosecutorial exhibit in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.
“We always want to stay one step ahead of the bad guy,” Jiggetts says. “And we can, with proper training, with continued funding, and with continued access to some of these new technologies. We also need to collaborate with other agencies, because we can’t always do it alone.”
The future of forensic science holds tremendous promise. Advancements in machine learning and AI can potentially remove significant barriers and enable greater efficiencies. But even though these technologies are valuable tools for expanding the FBI’s forensic capabilities, they are nothing without human input.
“I am continually impressed by the men and women of the FBI Laboratory, and how driven they are to bring resolution to these cases,” Cook says. “Whether it’s through the research units or our senior-level scientists, I’ve seen continued advancements across all forensic disciplines at the FBI. It’s part of what makes us the premier forensic laboratory in the world.”
Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.