A Big-City BusinessImagine the usual television crime drama. The same elements typically surround the mystery and the suspense: the victim, the suspect, the police officers who want to crack the case, and the detectives who gather evidence. Equally important are the scientists working in the crime labs--like Marla Fiorelli '99. A forensic biologist with the Illinois State Police in Chicago, Fiorelli regularly conducts the laboratory work that can put a suspected criminal behind bars for years, or that can prove his innocence.
"Forensics is definitely a big-city business," she says. In a city like Chicago, police departments never have to worry about a shortage of work. Cases ranging from burglary, to sexual assault, to homicide keep scientists like Fiorelli busy every day.
Increasingly popular prime-time crime dramas have cast new light on the work performed by forensic investigators and have created public interest in the science behind catching a criminal. "These shows have done a lot to educate people on what forensics is," Fiorelli explains. She adds, however, that the shows also take liberties in their storytelling. "No forensic scientist would ever interview a victim," she says. "They would lose their objectivity." She also points out that it takes much longer than just one afternoon to obtain DNA results from a blood sample, despite what some shows would have audiences believe.
Fiorelli also knows that forensic testing is not a glamorous job. "Every once in a while, something will come across your desk that you can't cope with," she says, noting that even a technician with the strongest stomach might be unable to handle insects, decomposing bodies, rank odors, stray hairs, or bodily waste. "Everyone's got this demon" but must get past these fears, she says.
Fiorelli came to Kenyon intent on studying biochemistry and piano and then continuing into medical school. She lost her interest in pursuing medicine but found an interest in forensics. "I've always been a murder mystery junkie," she says. She enjoys wrapping her mind around puzzles. After graduating from Kenyon, Fiorelli obtained a master's degree in forensic science from the University of Illinois at Chicago and then began working for the Illinois State Police.
Although her biochemistry degree was originally intended to launch her into medicine, it nevertheless proved worthwhile in her new career. "The basis for all the tests we use [in forensics] is found in biochemistry," she says. "It was exactly what I needed to prepare."
Investigators collect all available evidence at the crime scene and return it to the crime lab, where scientists like Fiorelli "weed through evidence to find what's important." She has handled evidence from a wide range of crimes and is currently working through a backlog of old sexual-assault cases that took place before large DNA databases were commonplace. Now that DNA samples from widespread cases have been collected in enormous databases, Fiorelli is able to use that data to link old, unsolved cases to other, solved cases.
While Fiorelli spends most of her time in the crime lab, she is occasionally required to present her findings in court. The task is complicated, as she must be both a competent scientist, confident of her abilities in the lab, and a teacher, able to explain not only her findings but also the methodology of her tests to audiences who lack a thorough understanding of forensics.
"Testifying is a little nerve wracking," Fiorelli admits. "It's your reputation on the line. You know you've run the tests a million times before, you know you ran all the proper controls which functioned properly, but suddenly you have to take scientific principles and explain them to a jury. And, they have to believe you."
Moreover, Fiorelli says, her work needs to stand up to attacks. "It's the job of the opposing counsel to discredit you, if they can, to make you less believable," she says. "It's important that the jury trusts you. You have to really know your stuff and be very cool under pressure."
There's no doubt that Fiorelli knows her stuff. She has lately been testing evidence in well-known cases that have made headlines around Chicago. "They've had enough faith in me to put me on higher-profile cases under some public scrutiny," she says.
When she is not running tests in the crime lab, Fiorelli enjoys a much different pursuit--playing violin. She performs with the Evanston Community Symphony, continuing an interest she began at Kenyon, when she played with the Knox County Symphony and sang with the Chasers.
Fiorelli also enjoys spending time at home with her boyfriend, Will Kaplan '99, and with her neighbor, Daniel Sweeney '97. "We have a great Kenyon support system up here," she laughs.
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