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The body never lies

When the cause of a death isn’t obvious, it’s the job of a forensic toxicologist to find the hints that lurk in the fluids of the body.

When the cause of a death isn’t obvious, it’s the job of a forensic toxicologist to find the hints that lurk in the fluids of the body.

For a forensic scientist who specializes in toxicology like Gillian Sayer, discovering the truth means lots of time spent in the lab analyzing blood and urine samples for toxins and other external substances that may have contributed to a death. A lethal amount of a drug in the bloodstream can indicate a drug overdose or the presence of alcohol might shed light on why someone took a fatal fall down a simple flight of stairs, for example.

Unlike the flashy, instantaneous results often portrayed on popular forensic television shows — like CSI: NY —Sayer insists work in toxicology is far more methodical, meticulous and time-consuming.

“A big misconception is that analysis takes five minutes. It’s a much longer process than that, and our puns aren’t nearly as good as on CSI,” Sayer joked.

Sayer, 23, works in the Toxicology Section at the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto and says an important aspect of her job is the closure it provides to loved ones.

“I think it’s an important service we provide. It gives peace of mind to the family and provides support for the criminal justice system,” Sayer said.

Sayer got interested in forensics through the documentaries she watched growing up, like Cold Case Files. She studied Forensic Science at the University of Toronto and secured an internship which placed her at the Centre of Forensic Sciences where she still works today. The internship let her try her hand at forensics and get her foot in the door for a job.

“The internship course got me exposed to the industry — I can’t stress how important that was,” she said.

Starting out as a forensic technologist who gathered and prepared samples, Sayer now analyzes samples herself as a forensic scientist. She hopes to eventually become a fully qualified toxicologist to report on her own cases and testify in the courtroom. She loves the daily challenge, especially since new drugs and new ways of taking old ones force her to stay current.

“I find the analytical work to be really challenging. Keeping up with what drugs are out there and how people are taking them is crucial. People will always find novel ways to take drugs,” Sayer said.

The most satisfying thing about finding a career in the field of forensics, for Sayer, has been proving she can do it.

“I was told once (by an instructor) I wasn’t smart enough to get an internship here. I thought, ‘I’m going to do it anyway.’ If this is something you want to do, then pursue it whole-heartedly,” Sayer said.

 
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