Engineering Sciences: Taking Science to Heart

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles contained in the Academy News are those of the identified authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Academy.

Sources: Carol A. Erikson, MSPH, Section chair, incorporating valuable contributions from Donn N. Peterson, MSME, PE, Walter Goldstein, PhD, James B. Hyzer, PhD, and Peter Alexander, PhD

ESS became a member of the AAFS family with its first official meeting as the “Engineering Section” back in 1982. Spearheaded by members of the General Section, including John Carroll, Jerry Fische, David Goldman, Ray Hart, George Liebler, Nate Puchat, Ira Rimson, Gene Tims, Hal Wilkinson, and Donn Peterson, a key issue for the new section was whether or not a PE license would be a requirement for membership. Key, in part, because not all of the original members held a PE! A compromise was reached in 1988, when we became the Engineering Sciences Section (ESS), welcoming forensic engineers and forensic scientists from a wide range of specific disciplines … with no PE required.

Professional certification remained an issue as it became clear that some “experts” were testifying with little or no valid education, training, or experience. Several of the original members of ESS were instrumental in establishing a completely independent organization to certify forensic engineering scientists based upon their education, training, experience, and ethics. Originally incorporated as the International Institute of Forensic Engineering Sciences (IIFES), this organization became the International Board of Forensic Engineering Sciences (IBFES) in 2008. The Trustees and Diplomates of the IBFES are a seasoned group of professionals, many of whom are part of the current ESS family.

Mentors within our section have been plentiful. One name in particular bears mentioning as it has become a fixture in the annals of the ESS. Forensic engineer Andrew Payne, Jr., joined in the mid-1980s and quickly became an integral part of the section and all of its activities. Andrew was a prolific presenter and consistent participant at the AAFS Annual Meetings, earning him great respect among his peers as a talented professional and mentor. After his death, ESS chose to honor his memory by establishing a section award in his name. The Andrew H. Payne Special Achievement Award recognizes outstanding contributions to the technical programs of the ESS, AAFS, and to the practice of engineering sciences – a fitting tribute.

Within the ESS family, we have had quite a few parent-child duos on our membership list, more than you might expect for a group of our moderate size. Andrew Payne’s daughter, Eleanor Posey, became half of the first father-daughter pair; she was also the first woman to join ESS. Currently, ESS boasts at least five parent-child pairs on our membership rolls: Bill and Jim Hyzer, Steve and Scott Batterman, Helmut and Peter Brosz, Harold and Darren Franck, and David and Steven Schorr. It’s never too early to start mentoring.

With an eye to how engineering sciences fits into the greater scheme of things, ESS coordinated joint sessions with the Jurisprudence Section at the 2010, 2012, and 2014 annual meetings. These sessions took on several highly relevant and important topics: the Daubert and Frye gatekeeping rules, government efforts to strengthen forensic sciences, and fracking; all brought in sizable crowds of interested parties. A joint session planned for the 2015 meeting will continue the trend of tackling difficult subjects – it will focus on error rates and their effects on the presentation of forensic evidence at trial. ESS also sponsored a multidisciplinary session that focused on a timely issue: sick building syndrome. contributions from engineers, toxicologists, analytical laboratories, agency representatives (EPA and NIOSH), and health specialists made this a comprehensive and informative program that was well-attended and very well-received.

Effective collaboration is nothing new. In 1986, Bill Hyzer of ESS met with Thomas Krauss from the Odontology Section and hatched an idea for a two-dimensional scale to quantify bitemark impressions. At the time, the only available scale was linear, which was inadequate for the task on several levels. The “ABFO No. 2 Scale” was presented to, and accepted by, the American Board of Forensic Odontology in 1987, and an article describing the development of the new scale was published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 1988. Subsequent efforts by Tom and Bill to quantify errors associated with the scale and to establish guidelines for its use include a cadaver, plier-mounted dentures, and a two-headed coin. nothing boring about those experiments!

When he tells this story in his memoir, Mr. Hyzer includes a wonderful quote from lord Kelvin:

“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science.”

Given its modest size, the dizzying variety of disciplines within ESS is quite remarkable. Still, the intellectual and experimental processes we follow are more similar than they are different. Whether you call it the Scientific Method or the Engineering Design Process, you start by asking a question or defining a problem. Then you do background research, familiarizing yourself with the current state of the art, before formulating a hypothesis or identifying requirements to resolve the problem and conducting an experiment or building a prototype. Finally, you evaluate your data or test your design, draw conclusions, and communicate your results. Following this process requires us to look back at what has already been done, to rely on each other for feedback and support, and to look ahead to how this information can be communicated and built upon. Done well, our efforts add to the body of scientific knowledge and move us forward in our understanding of how the world works. And, they help us to ask more good questions.

At the core of every family is its heart – individuals connected over time and space by blood, love, respect, or all of the above. At the heart of forensics is science, be it engineering, chemical, biological, environmental, or all of the above – professionals connected by curiosity, integrity, and common goals.