Dr. Jenifer Smith, 57, was appointed director of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Forensic Sciences in July, where she oversees a staff of 120. She was an FBI special agent for 23 years and was a faculty member at Penn State from 2010 to 2015. She and her husband live in Washington.
There are so many forensics-based TV shows. And they all make forensics look like such a cool job. Is it a cool job?
It’s the coolest job. That part they’re correct about. There’s a few things maybe that are off the mark a bit.
What do they get wrong?
Everything’s a lot faster on the shows. And everything’s a lot more perfect. So the fingerprint isn’t like a partial print — it’s like somebody just walks up and puts that big old thumbprint on just what you need it to be on. And I used to laugh because they’re actors and they’re gorgeous. I’m not saying we’re not attractive people, but if you looked at my Quantico class versus the “Quantico” show, you would not find the same people.
Your Quantico class is going to be mad.
I know! But I have the picture upstairs if you want to verify. And we don’t want to disappoint people who go to Quantico and are wondering, Where are all these gorgeous people?
When you were in college, were you watching “Quincy M.E.” and thinking, I would love to do this kind of work?
Yes, “Quincy” was on, but I think before that, as a kid, it was reading Nancy Drew. I was so disappointed when my mother said she wasn’t real. But I love science. I was growing up in the ’60s, and we were landing people on the moon, so science was very cool. Girls were being encouraged to go out and do these things. And I wanted to be a detective, so I went to the library, and there was a book about forensic science, and it was a really happy marriage of my interests. Because I enjoyed science, but I didn’t necessarily see myself as that person in the lab coat.
Do you have those dramatic moments where you’re looking into a microscope and just pump your fist?
So my work is in DNA, and I think the dramatic moments on the important cases I’ve worked actually come when you exclude someone. In the first result you can often exclude an individual who has been identified. And it can be frustrating for the investigator, but for that individual who has been accused, it’s obviously a great moment. So that’s part of the process.
One of your titles at the FBI was chief of the weapons of mass destruction analysis section. Were you worried all the time?
I think knowledge is power in that sense. So I don’t worry that much because I have an appreciation for what it would take to actually pull off an event like that, what really constitutes a threat in that instance. Interestingly, when it comes to biological pathogens or organisms, Mother Nature can often cause more problems for us than man-made. When we get ill we get ill because of viruses. We get ill because we may eat food that is accidentally contaminated. My job is to figure out when it’s not Mother Nature, but man-made. And more often than not it’s Mother Nature.
So we need to ban Mother Nature?
No. We just need to recognize her for her power. And have a healthy respect for why we need to wash our hands.
Over your career, are there cases that stand out?
I had a sexual assault case in my home town, in little Eaton, Ohio. There was an individual that was assaulting women in my home town, and in Indiana, across the border, and I was able to figure out who did it. We had a DNA match. Also, I met President Clinton [while working] the Monica Lewinsky case. We did that DNA. That was a more unusual one.
What do … I’m not even sure what question I should ask about that. What was President Clinton like?
At that moment in time, a little embarrassed, to be honest. It wasn’t exactly how I had planned to meet the president.
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