Fighting crime with chemistry: an interview with forensic toxicologist Sabra Botch-Jones

Sabra Botch-Jones, a forensic toxicology professor at Boston University, studies patterns of drug use and abuse, and consults on legal cases through her Boston-based firm, fTox Consulting, LLC.  Her research at Boston University focuses on creating ways to detect new illicit drugs within tissue or blood samples from a crime scene.

image credit: awifs.org

image credit: awifs.org

After working at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a lab technician, she moved to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office as a senior forensic toxicologist and her case load went from about 300 cases a year to about 3,000. We spoke for about an hour in her office at the Boston University School of Medicine and this is a condensed and edited version of that conversation.

Why did you decide to focus on forensic toxicology?

I transferred to the University of Central Oklahoma to finish my bachelor’s degree once I had switched over from biology to criminal justice. One of their emphases was substance abuse studies and I was like “oh, that’s interesting!” and they had an internship requirement for graduation.

My job at the time was working at Delta as a customer service representative, so I thought wouldn’t it be great if I could combine my love of aviation with forensic science. And I literally just went on Google and found the FAA lab right in Oklahoma City that I didn’t even know existed. I stumbled across the phone number to the lab manager, called him up, and naively asked if they even took interns, and he was just like, “I’ll take ya.”

And I did two internships while I was in school. One was focused on crime scene, which was mainly in the field, and one was focused on toxicology. I could have gone either way. I wasn’t sure what to do because both fields had jobs available so I went to a colleague at the FAA who told me to take the federal job, which was in toxicology rather than the city job in crime scene. Federal jobs typically pay better and have better benefits. I took his advice and it was the best decision. I loved my job.

No one leaves the FAA, they work there for 30-40 years because the job is so great. But it came time for me to move up in my career, so after eight years I made the shift to forensic toxicology at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Is there a case that you’ll never forget?

When I was working in Tarrant County we had a case come in of a man in his early 20s who had bludgeoned himself to death with a wooden sword. He was found in his mother’s home and not a single surface didn’t have blood on it – the scene description was absolutely horrifying. We test our samples and we expect to find something, alcohol, drugs, or anything, and we find nothing. But he wasn’t alone when this happened, his girlfriend was there, and she survived.

So the officers went back to the girlfriend and she admitted to taking hits of acid, which we should have been able to detect, so that wasn’t informative enough. She actually had some of the drugs left and gave them to the officers. It was tested, and found to be this new synthetic drug, known as the n-bomb.

We were asked if we could detect this, but we needed to develop and test a new method to be able to do so. In the end we were able to detect the n-bomb compound, but these compounds are so potent that they were below the limit of detection for all of the other assays we were working with.

How do labs keep up with new drugs and drug regulation in the US?

Well, drug regulation is already going through a change.

So what happens is that a clandestine illicit drug chemist is going to make a drug and then that drug is going to go out into the population. It’s going to gain in popularity and gradually we are going to see it in our forensic toxicology and drug chemistry labs. We then have to go through all of these legal steps to get it on the controlled substance list.

But then the clandestine chemist sees that it’s been put on the list and just alters the molecule a little, and the whole process starts up again.

In the past it was hard to get that second, third, and fourth molecule on the list, but now it’s much easier and faster than ever before with this new Analog Act that helps the new, slightly altered drug to be put on the controlled substance list.

What do you think of shows like Breaking Bad?

I don’t have cable, but I did try to watch one episode and it was so close to home. I remember at the time I was working at the medical examiner’s office and I walked in one day to the drug chemistry lab and they had recently seized a huge amount of meth. It was a fairly large laboratory and all the lab benches were just covered in every color of the rainbow. It was beautiful. It looked like candy, and I remember being so angry because I felt like it was so clear that they were targeting kids.

So when I tried to watch Breaking Bad, it felt way too close because I saw drugs and death all day, everyday and I want to escape reality when I watch TV. But I do I think it would be so fun to consult scientifically on a show like that.