Ed Sisco analyzing wipe samples of the outside of suspected drug packaging by thermal desorption direct analysis in real-time mass spectrometry (TD-DART-MS). Credit: E. Sisco/NIST

Improving Forensic Chemistry: A Q&A With NIST’s Ed Sisco

Ed Sisco has been a research chemist within the Surface and Trace Chemical Analysis Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) since 2014. His research has focused on chemical identification systems for forensics, homeland security and other applications. Ed is a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal in the Emerging Leaders category, which is awarded to federal employees under the age of 35 who have made important contributions early in their professional careers. The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals are intended to highlight excellence in the federal workforce and inspire other talented and dedicated individuals to go into public service.

Tell us about your career path thus far. How did you get involved in forensic science?

Why do you find working in forensic science interesting?

What made you decide on a career in the federal government?

What are the big scientific challenges today in forensic chemistry?

There is a big push to move toward objective, quantifiable interpretation of results as well. Many of the conclusions currently made by forensic chemists are at least partly subjective. In seized-drug analysis one may rely on a visual color change in a chemical reaction to identify a class of drug, while in fire debris analysis a chemist will visually compare a chemical fingerprint from a suspected arson sample to that of gasoline to determine if it is a match. These subjective conclusions can be difficult to defend in court and do not provide a measure of the confidence in the conclusion. One way to alleviate these concerns is to develop ways to arrive at objective, probabilistic interpretations and conclusions. Objective conclusions are already commonplace in forensic biology (DNA).

In seized-drug analysis, novel psychoactive substances — things like synthetic opioids, cathinones and cannabinoids — have unleashed their own set of challenges. In addition to safety concerns due to the increased potency of these compounds, these rapidly changing chemical structures often require laboratories to have to identify complete unknowns, which is something they had not traditionally had to do. The vast list of compounds that the community now has to identify makes using many traditional approaches difficult.

What would you like your impact to be?

What kinds of questions or concerns are being raised by the forensic chemists you meet?

What is it like to be a scientist working with the law-enforcement and forensic communities on often urgent problems?

Why is collaboration so important to you and to the field of forensic science?

Read Ed’s honoree profile.

Read more about Ed’s work in our feature story, “Safe, Efficient, Reliable: New Science in the Fight Against Killer Drugs.”

Scientists describe a new way for police and forensic chemists to test seized drugs while minimizing the risk of accidental exposure to fentanyl, a super potent drug that can be dangerous if a small amount becomes airborne and is accidentally inhaled.

This post originally appeared on Taking Measure, the official blog of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on May 5, 2021.

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NIST promotes U.S. innovation by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.

NIST promotes U.S. innovation by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life.