A Chemist's Journey to Forensic Science

Dr. Jasmine Drake.
Dr. Jasmine Drake

After spending three years in a lab creating and analyzing compounds that could be used as an energy source for a future superconductor, Dr. Jasmine Drake wanted to find a job with a more immediate impact on society.

She found it in the Drug Enforcement Administration South Central Laboratory in Dallas, where she tested drug samples seized by the DEA, U.S. Customs, the FBI and other federal, state and local agencies. She took cases from screening the initial evidence to testifying in court.

“I could take it from the cradle to the grave,” said Dr. Drake. “I could see, analyze and describe the evidence and talk to law enforcement officers in the field. I also could see the final part in the courtroom. I really got a good picture because I would see something from start to finish.”

Dr. Drake discovered drugs hidden in the sole of a boot.
Drake discovered drugs hidden in the sole of a boot.
While at the DEA, Dr. Drake began teaching police officers how to use field color tests to indicate whether drugs may have been found during stops or searches in the field. She also got to teach crime scene investigation classes to middle and high school students.

Those opportunities sparked a new career path for Dr. Drake, who left DEA to teach forensic science and chemistry classes at Nimitz High School in Irving and Cedar Valley Community College in Lancaster.

In the fall, Dr. Drake joined Sam Houston State University, College of Criminal Justice to pursue her dual love of teaching and research.

Dr. Drake finds her passion in teaching and research.
“That is both of my passions – teaching and research,” said Dr. Drake. “With research, I love learning and testing news things and, with teaching, I think I have something to offer students who might want to pursue a career in the forensics field or at a federal agency.”

Dr. Drake’s current research interest is in the area of designer drugs, which include synthetic compounds, like Spice, bath salts, and synthetic marijuana that mimic some of the euphoric symptoms of illegal drugs. Many crime labs don’t have good tests for designer drugs because every time one component is declared illegal by the government, drug chemists go back to the drawing boards to create new, similar compounds.

“It’s like a high speed game of cat and mouse,” said Dr. Drake. “As some compounds are added to the schedule of illegal drugs, people in the labs are tweaking and changing the compounds. The crime labs are behind. They are being bombarded with samples and don’t have time to develop new tests.”

The diffractometer at NIST.
The diffractometer at NIST.
Dr. Drake is very familiar with the process of creating new compounds. After graduating from Louisiana State University with her Ph.D. in Chemistry, she was awarded a Nuclear Regulatory Commission Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a measurement standard lab operated by the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C. There she studied novel inter-metallic materials using neutron diffraction, a technique used to analyze the structures and magnetism of substances, in a search for new materials with fascinating properties such as a superconductivity, which could be used in future applications and devices as an efficientenergy source to power everything from a train to a city. There she found an iron-selenium compound with promising results.

But the use of that compound in technology was years – if not decades – away.

Dr. Drake joined the DEA as a forensic chemist to get more immediate results to impact society in a positive way. She began testing drug samples and, over the years, she learned to extract samples from many unusual places, such as a paper towel full of fuel and methamphetamines, a sealed truck manifold, people’s hair, and designer dresses, to name a few. Once, her partner even has to figure out how to extract meth samples, both in liquid and crystal forms, from a sealed Heineken keg.

Dr. Drake gets ready to work in a clandestine lab in a haz-mat suit.
Dr. Drake gets ready to work in a clandestine lab in a haz-mat suit.
Dr. Drake also did field work at clandestine or hidden labs, making sure the chemicals were safe for investigators helping to collect evidence. During those trips, she saw the immediate danger of controlled substances and the need for good law enforcement and forensics, firsthand, including spotting drugs sitting next to children’s cereal bowls or the kids’ beach buckets in their play area.

“Every day is an adventure,” said Dr. Drake, who peppers her classes with lessons from the field. “I give my students real lessons in class. I like to present them with the technical knowledge but also how to apply it. I teach them to pay attention to the details. Never be the forensic scientist that just pushes buttons– it is your job to analyze each case with quality and integrity. As a forensic scientist, you also have to think outside the box.”

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