Forensic scientist Melinda McNair laughs when she watches “CSI” television shows.
“Usually what makes me laugh is they just press a button and voila, they have their answer, and that's not how it works,” said McNair, who works at the Indiana State Police Fort Wayne Regional Laboratory.
“On TV, (law enforcement officers) are portrayed (like) they can do crime scene, DNA, drug analysis. They can do it all,” McNair said. In reality, drug analysis is its own niche in forensic science, and tests on substances can range from a couple of days to a couple of weeks.
“We do multiple testing techniques on our items of evidence to determine what they are,” she said.
McNair was so thorough in every task assigned by the laboratory that she was chosen the 2018 Indiana State Police Forensic Scientist of the Year. She received the award last month in Indianapolis.
The state police have four labs. Along with Fort Wayne, others are in Evansville, Lowell and Indianapolis. The labs employ 112 forensic scientists.
Last year, McNair analyzed more than twice the number of drug cases expected of a drug analyst, with no errors in identifying drugs, according to Maj. Steve Holland, commander of the Indiana State Police Laboratory Division. And she led the state drug unit in production, with more than 1,000 drug cases.
She “routinely volunteered to examine rush court cases” and did the work while the laboratory was being physically updated, Holland said in a news release.
Other tasks that earned McNair recognition included maintaining the drug reference materials inventory, ordering new materials and general supplies, and assisting with the maintenance of laboratory instruments.
Growing up in southern Indiana's Crawford County, McNair thought she wanted to be a medical examiner, but realized the caseload and emotional toll of the job would be difficult.
She started to get “intrigued” with forensic science even before the “CSI” television show came out. Around the time she entered the University of Eastern Kentucky, ultimately earning a Bachelor of Science in forensic science in 2008, there was a huge student enrollment boom, she said.
“All of them wanted to major in forensic science. By the time I graduated, there was only a handful of us. Most students didn't realize how much chemistry was involved,” McNair said.
She came to Fort Wayne when she followed her future husband, Brad, who was a civil engineering major at IPFW, now Purdue Fort Wayne.
For five years, she worked for an environmental lab analyzing biosolids and wastewater treatment samples, among other duties.
In 2013, she was hired at the Fort Wayne lab. “I was using the forensic science degree, so that was nice,” McNair said.
At the Fort Wayne lab, there are 14 employees: 11 analysts, two evidence clerks and a lab manager.
The analysts work in four disciplines: firearm, fingerprints, DNA and drugs. She is one of four drug analysts, she said.
“We only do what is seized from police agencies,” McNair explained. “We examine items for the presence of controlled substances, generate a report and testify in court, when necessary.”
Drugs tested come from drug raids, traffic stops, police investigations – “you name it,” McNair said.
Safety is an important issue at the lab. McNair acted as a safety officer and organized a Narcan refresher training, Holland wrote.
Narcan, a drug administered through the nose to resuscitate drug overdose victims, is also an important item at the lab.
“It doesn't take much to be overcome by fentanyl,” McNair said. “We don't know what they (drugs) are when they come into the laboratory, so it is critical that we have someone on hand when they (analysts) open a baggie of drugs and they become overcome by it.”
Drug analysts typically wear lab coats and gloves and sometimes safety glasses, “but if we are dealing with a large amount of a substance, we also wear face masks and face shields to help protect us,” she said.”We really don't know what we have until we run our tests, so it's really important that we have some of these safety features in place.”
Drugs are constantly evolving, and the opioid epidemic throughout the nation has also hit Indiana and caused a backlog in drug testing cases, McNair said.
“Without those folks and the things that they do and the expertise they have or possess, it would be very difficult for the average law enforcement officer to fully do what is expected of us by the public,” state police spokesman Ron Galaviz said.
Galaviz referred to the drug analysts as the “unseen and unsung heroes” of law enforcement.
“Nobody thinks of those people,” he said. “They do a lot of the stuff behind the scene that nobody knows about.”
But there's another aspect for McNair.
“I do enjoy learning about drugs, but ultimately I hope the people get the help that they need.”