As a lead forensic scientist, Brenda Barron Christy ’98 makes a living by getting lost in the details.
by Kristen Manieri | photo by Chris Bolling
If you want a glimpse into the world of real-life forensic science, don’t bother watching CSI. At least, that’s the advice of Brenda Barron Christy ’98, principal forensic scientist for the Virginia Department of Forensic Science (DFS). The world of a real forensic scientist isn’t quite so glamorous.
But That’s not to say it’s boring; far from it. While it might take hours for Brenda to conduct tests on a crime scene sample—unlike the five minutes it takes her television counterparts—the results she produces are no less dramatic. They solve cases, implicate the correct perpetrator(s), and produce justice. (Cue theme music.)
All joking aside, Brenda has spent the last 13 years at the DFS in Norfolk peeling back the layers of evidence. “I work in the trace evidence section, where I examine fire debris, paints, plastics, lamp filaments, fracture matches, and [conduct] general chemical exams such as bank dyes, acids, bases, and anything else chemistry related,” she says.
The path to forensic science became clear to Brenda while she attended Rollins as a chemistry major. In addition to an internship at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office crime lab, Brenda also interned with the FBI in Washington, D.C., where she performed research in the latent fingerprint lab. “I went to Rollins because I thought I would want to go to medical school, but I quickly discovered that I didn’t enjoy biology but loved chemistry,” Brenda says.
It’s also kismet that she grew up next door to Jim McNamara ’81MSCJ, who at the time was director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Orlando crime lab. “He helped me with my high school science fair project on forensic differences between identical twins. I’m sure he didn’t know he was helping me choose my career path at the same time.”
Later, Brenda got her forensic science master’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she spent nights in the Richmond crime lab studying with forensic scientists. In 1999, she started working at the Virginia DFS and now does trace evidence testing for approximately 150 criminal cases each year. Those tests yield reports that may result in her court testimony but may also result in a guilty plea without the need for a trial. Scientific evidence can be pretty irrefutable.
Brenda will tell you that there’s a lot of satisfaction in this line of work, including the fact that her science-based conclusions often help law enforcement narrow an investigation. “There was a pedestrian hit-and-run case a few years ago … and the police had no leads whatsoever,” Brenda says. “So they brought the victim’s clothing to me and I recovered automotive paint and was able to tell them exactly what make, model, and color of car to look for. They found it 40 minutes later. That was very memorable for me, and it really reinforced that what I do actually helps solve cases.” Conversely, she says, her work has vindicated people of crimes.
Here’s another way that Brenda’s job differs from CSI: She doesn’t visit crime scenes; her work is done exclusively inside her lab and at her computer. “I work regular office hours, I’m not on call, I never sit down with a suspect, and I rarely go to the morgue.” If she can avoid it, she doesn’t like to see gruesome crime scene photos. “[Forensic scientists] don’t know a lot about the crime that’s occurred, just what we need to know in order to do the examination appropriately,” Brenda says.
“The science is unbiased, which means we need to know very little about the crime and law enforcement’s perspective of it to do our work. I don’t need to know what bank the suspect robbed, his name, or how much money he took. I just need to know to look for bank dye on his shoes,” she says. “Scientists by nature are unbiased people. You follow the facts, and if you can’t prove that it’s there, you can’t make up the evidence. You can only prove based on what you have.”