AS AN EXPERT WITNESS to the courts, Brianna Peterson has seen her share of heartbreaking cases. “I may have to testify against a drunk driver who killed somebody in an accident,” Peterson says. The preventable loss of life “from people just being irresponsible and driving when they are impaired” saddens her. “Nobody sets out to drive drunk and kill someone; everybody always thinks they are fine…but accidents happen. So don’t put yourself in a position that you may regret later.”
Ayoung woman, 24, takes the witness stand in a humid Georgia courtroom. The accused sits steps away. Although they’ve never met, she’s completely familiar with his blood and hair analysis and will soon give expert testimony that may sway the case. Stating her name, “Brianna Peterson,” and taking the oath, she feels the jurors’ staring eyes. Although she thinks she’ll get used to this, she doesn’t. Every finding in her testimony will almost certainly be challenged despite her graduate degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago. When she testifies, there’s a rejoinder. “Oh, you’re a Yankee aren’t you?” The remark is apropos of nothing, and Peterson shrugs it off. Yet she leaves the stand resolving to make her qualifications overshadow her accent. She resolves to get a doctorate—case closed!
AS AN UNDERGRADUATE, Brianna Peterson discovered a clue to her own destiny within a novel. Now a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia, she’s immersed in the world of forensics and toxicology, seeking crime related clues. On television, the bodies pile up and yet stylishlydressed investigators crack the crime in 45 minutes or less. But in reality, one observer pointedly calls forensic work “often more gross than sexy.”
The work is definitely cerebral and meticulous. And it requires all the training and experience Peterson has acquired since coming of age in Wisconsin. Peterson’s journey was inspired by mysteries. One day she read about an FBI profiler, a psychologist whose specialty was serial killers. The idea of using science to discern criminal behaviors jelled with the young woman who excelled in math and science.
As an adult, Peterson has worked on criminal conundrums using the lens of a microscope and her own investigative skills. She is completing doctoral work in the interdisciplinary toxicology program at UGA this May, where she studied pharmaceutical and biomedical sciences. A new opportunity awaits her in the Pacific Northwest as a forensic toxicologist. However, she warns, real investigators rely more upon textbooks and laboratory science than their counterparts on television. (See the sidebar for more on what is called “the CSI effect”.)
“Viewing cadavers is not a typical duty of being a toxicologist,” Peterson says. “However, while I was in training with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, I did see a few bodies undergoing autopsy. It was interesting to me from a perspective of seeing our anatomy and how amazing the human body is....but after seeing a couple of bodies...I had enough.”
PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG SCIENTIST
As a young student, Peterson enjoyed liberal arts and sciences equally. She methodically explored future options. “I liked math and had an analytical mind. I’d take the [aptitude] tests, and they’d say, ‘You have multi-interests and multitalents,’ and so this was no help.” But high school chemistry was a revelation to her.
“Once I took a chemistry class I really enjoyed it,” Peterson recalls. Meanwhile, mystery and crime writers introduced Peterson to analytical applications that left the young reader intrigued. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, father of the mystery genre, the budding scientist enjoyed the notion of applying hard science to criminal inquiry. She had found a place where her fondness for mysteries and science converged— at least in books.
Eventually Peterson read a story about the FBI profiler. She visited a career center and discovered forensic science, which required grounding in chemistry. It was an “ah-ha!” moment. Peterson’s quick to point out she discovered forensic investigation through books long before television brought it to the masses.
“I read a lot of mysteries and crime books,” she recalls, “and this was before Patricia Cornwell’s work came out. It was before the forensics boom.” Later, Peterson read Patricia Cornwell and medical anthropologist Kathy Reichs. She noted Reichs’ real-life credentials for scientifically-based sleuthing. Peterson’s own career in forensics was already formulating.
AN EVOLVING SLEUTH…
Peterson joined the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) in Savannah following forensic science graduate study in Illinois. Still in her 20s, she recalls the GBI experience fondly. “It was great. It’s not as glamorous or exciting as people think from the TV stuff. It’s still science, but you can help society as well.”
Peterson analyzed blood and urine samples for traces of drugs inside the GBI laboratory. That’s where the similarity between television programs and reality ends.
“As a toxicologist I didn’t really participate in a lot of ‘murder’ cases per se.” She did her work solely within a lab setting and did not visit crime scenes in the course of forensic analysis. “That’s a misconception that people have,” she explains.
Peterson read case reports from accidents and strove to remain impartial. She focused strictly upon the facts she found. She had some pharmacology background, but wanted more whenever defending her findings in court. “I felt I could be a better expert witness if I had more education in that area. That’s one of the reasons I went back to school.”
All the teasing she endured about a northern accent didn’t faze Peterson when it was time to choose a doctoral program. The South was familiar; she had already lived and worked in Georgia. UGA’s campus and surrounding small town contrasted favorably against the University of Illinois.
“Chicago is a major city, and the campus was located downtown, so it never felt like I was on a university campus. Here it definitely does feel that way. I looked at Athens and UGA and liked the college and small town environment,” remembers Peterson.
This spring, the independently minded scientist becomes the first PhD in her family. “Some do this because their parent’s a doctor and so they’re going to be one. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but one I prioritized myself.”
Peterson’s doctoral work concerns whether or not phospholipase A2 enzymes are part of the mechanism of oxidantinduced neural cell death. In 2005 she was nominated for a Graduate School dissertation completion award by her department head. She also won an award for her research in lipidomics. “
I do think these scholarships are very important. In some departments funding is limited, and they’re trying to graduate students in four years. In scientific programs you can’t always graduate doctoral students in four years,” says Peterson. “Will work suffer because of this?” she asks.
There are plenty of women working in her field, Peterson says. She found many counterparts at UGA. “The forensic science field is full of females,” Peterson says, pleased this trend extends throughout the sciences and pharmaceutical school.
“I definitely feel I made the right choice in this school; I felt it was very friendly here and they cared about building me as a student and preparing me to enter the career force.”
Now 32, she will resume work in a Seattle crime lab. This time when she takes the courtroom stand, she will be armed with a dangerous dossier. Peterson combines investigative experience with indisputable academic achievement at UGA.
Newsweek magazine bemoans the real repercussions of unrealistic television dramas like “CSI,” or “Cold Case”. In reality, toxicology reports take agonizing weeks to complete. High-tech tests, like those determining DNA, are time consuming and costly. Brianna Peterson agrees. “TV shows have caused false perceptions of the forensic field. It's good entertainment, but can have a negative effect on the forensic community.” The result is actually referenced in online encyclopediaWikipedia, she adds, as the CSI effect, or syndrome. The CSI effect impacts classrooms and courtrooms. Students demand forensic courses that don’t necessarily pertain to the actual demands of the work itself.
The CSI effect influences judicial decisions as well.
“I've read of instances where juries don't convict people because they expect to see DNA for every case, or to have all these high tech lab analyses like they see on TV. But the reality is that crime labs are under-funded. There are limited resources, so it's not possible to analyze every last piece of evidence if it's not necessary for a case,” Peterson says.
She gives an example: “Our procedures stated that if you found somebody to have an alcohol level above 0.08, you didn't do any further testing for drugs. It was felt that you had shown "impairment" by finding that level. My thought is, when this gets to court, would a jury or judge be less inclined to give a more lenient sentence if they were aware the suspect also had illicit drugs in their system in addition to alcohol?”
Peterson no longer watches crime dramas, saying she is completely put off by the lack of realism (“dark labs, scientists interrogating suspects, etc.”). She sighs and adds, “The science is accurate I'm sure, but they show things occurring at a much faster rate and these labs are loaded with the most up to date, expensive equipment. And every case is not so glamorous or over-the-top interesting. You do lots of routine analyses, and it's rare that you get a case that would interest someone not in your profession.”