Interview with Program Director Max Houck

What is your current job role and what does this position involve?

My current role is Visiting Assistant Professor and Director of the Forensic Studies & Justice Program at University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The Program teaches forensic investigative techniques and scientific applications in criminal cases, using structured analytic techniques borrowed from the intelligence community to mitigate and reduce bias, and how to improve the criminal justice system and avoid wrongful convictions. I created the Program, teach in it, and conduct research in these areas.

How did you come to work in the field of forensic science?

I became interested in forensic science through taking anthropology courses for my undergraduate minor; I was originally in International Relations and was going to be a translator (Russian and Japanese). Ultimately, bones made more sense than conjugating irregular Russian verbs and I changed majors. In my Masters work, I was a student of Jay Siegel, who set me on my path to a forensic science career.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career to date?

Being Director of the Washington, D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences. I structured the new agency, created many of its new policies for independent science, and worked with people who remain my heroes for what they do.

During your years working in forensic science, how do you feel the field has changed?

I worry that the field has become a bit of a cargo-cult science–we’ve “drunk our own Kool-aid”, as the saying goes. We believe if we SAY something is “scientific”, then it IS scientific. We’ve also come up with some fairly suspect ways of justifying bad or marginal science and these have been accepted by an all-too-willing court system. That is beginning to change, a little, with some good basic research into the fundamentals of our science but we’re still hampered by trying to be the servant of justice instead of a partner in the process.

In recent years, concerns over the reliability of some forensic techniques have been raised in the media. What steps do you think we need to be taking to ensure that only scientifically reliable techniques are utilised in legal investigations?

First and foremost, forensic agencies need to be independent of law enforcement; that won’t solve everything but it’s a good start to ensure we’re not marginalized. Second, we need to stop worrying about new methods and shore up the ones we’re already using–do they work and, if so, how well? Finally, we have to be better communicators about what we can and cannot say and why. Being pressured by money, time, or politics only gets you shoddy results–just look at any of the latest “forensic failures”.

Finally, do you have any words of wisdom for those pursuing a career in forensic science?

Be a scientist first; the application to criminal cases can come later. Don’t job hop; keep your first job at least two years and then move up or out. And last, don’t worry about ethics, worry about integrity. Ethics is knowing right from wrong and prisons are full of people who know the difference, they just lacked the integrity to make the right choice.

 

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