A career in forensic entomology may not be for the faint of heart, but the study of insects on the postmortem body can yield a wealth of information in criminal cases.
Forensic entomology in a medicolegal or medicocriminal context focuses on insects that colonize in human tissue in postmortem situations. Forensic entomology involves estimating the age of insects developing on human remains; specifically, it involves estimating the time of colonization or time when eggs or larvae are deposited on the remains (called the minimum time since colonization) and the time elapsed since insect activity began (called the postmortem interval, or PMI).
Forensic entomology in a medicocriminal context is often used to:
- Establish the geographical location of death
- Associate the victim and suspect to each other
- Identify the sites of trauma
- Determine time of death
- Provide alternative toxicology and DNA samples
Although some forensic entomologists are employed full-time by law enforcement agencies, these forensic scientists most often work on a contract basis when called in to assist medical examiners, coroners, police agencies, and federal agencies answer critical questions pertaining to criminal death investigations.
Forensic entomologist jobs as they relate to a criminal death investigation often involve:
- Responding to the crime scene to document, recover, and identify human remains and to collect and preserve physical an biological evidence
- Studying the various aspects of the insects, including type, growth, developmental stage, or damage caused to the postmortem body to determine time of death
- Studying climate and weather patterns preceding and subsequent to the criminal act as to determine the life stages of the insects
- Determining if insects at the scene were indigenous to the area of were transported by the victim or perpetrator
- Developing organized and accurate entomology reports
- Supervising the handling of all entomological specimens to ensure proper processing, identification, and storage
- Developing procedures for forensic entomological case work, collection and documentation
All evidence collected at the scene of a crime by a forensic entomologist must be collected and stored according to strict guidelines and protocols to ensure it can be admissible in court, if necessary. Law enforcement officials therefore often accompany forensic entomologists to the scene of the crime to ensure that all proper steps are taken during the collection and preservation of evidnece.
Education for Forensic Entomologists
Forensic entomologists are Board-certified forensic scientists who have earned a Ph.D. in Entomology. In addition to a doctorate degree in entomology, individuals who want to pursue a career as a forensic entomologist must complete coursework specific to the forensic application of entomology. There are a few institutions in the United States that offer graduate degrees or specializations in forensic entomology.
An education in forensic entomology includes research and case investigation, accepted standards of crime scene investigation, evidence handling, and ecology. Common coursework in an entomology program may include:
- Introduction to forensic science
- Advanced forensic studies
- Forensic digital imaging
- Forensic entomology
- Human variation
- Anthropological archaeology
- Human osteology
- Weather and climate
- Human anatomy and physiology
- Cell structure and function
- Cell structure lab
- Quantitative/analytical chemistry
- Psychology of death and dying
- Genetics lab
- General entomology
Forensic entomologists often gain valuable experience in medicolegal or medicocriminal forensic entomology casework through an apprenticeship with a Board-certified entomologist.
Professional Certification for Forensic Entomologists
Board certification must be achieved and maintained through the American Board of Forensic Entomology.
The American Board of Forensic Entomology issues and maintains certification for Diplomates and Members.
Certification, a peer review process that includes both a written and practical exam, is issued for five-year terms. To become certified, candidates must pass both portions of the ABFE Board Certification Exam (with a score of at least 80 percent) and submit five case exemplars to the review board prior to becoming Board-certified. The examination is offered at the North American Forensic Entomology Association annual conference or at the AAFS annual meeting.
Salary Expectations for Forensic Entomologists
Although there is no readily available statistics on forensic entomologist salaries, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a mean annual salary of $55,730 for forensic science technicians as of May 2012. The top 10 percent earned an annual salary of $85,210 during the same period.
The largest employers of forensic science technicians in May 2012 were:
- Local government
- State government
- Medical and diagnostic laboratories
- Federal executive branch
The top-paying industries for forensic science technicians during the same time were:
- Federal executive branch: $94,800
- Medical and diagnostic laboratories: $66,390
- Architectural, engineering, and related services: $61,680
- Local government: $55,950
- State government: $51,100