An Interview with a Forensic Pathology Fellow

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Dr. Austin Wiles is currently a forensic pathology fellow at the Central District Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, VA. Dr. Wiles graduated from Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk and completed his pathology residency at VCU Medical Center in Richmond, VA. The following is a Q&A about working in the field of forensic pathology.

Q: What is your current job description?

A: I am a forensic pathology fellow. I perform autopsies and external exams on people who have died violently or suspiciously.

Q: Is this what your dream job has always been?

A: No, for a very long time I planned on becoming a surgeon. After doing several surgical rotations in medical school, I felt like the operating room was becoming tedious. I still enjoyed doing procedures, so I chose pathology.

Q: What is the path you took to get here?

A: I’ve wanted to be a doctor since I was four years old. I went to college at William and Mary, where I majored in chemistry and minored in mathematics. I did research under an NIH-funded grant all eight semesters and three summers while I was there. I worked in a Synthetic Organometallic laboratory where we developed new copper-melamine compounds as additives for plastics and catalytic copper networks for future synthetic needs. As part of my research, I used X-ray crystallography, mass spectrometry, infrared spectral analysis, and nuclear magnetic resonance imaging to characterize our new compounds. I also obtained a certificate in biochemistry and worked extensively in computational modeling of biological compounds using triple-quadrapole mass spectrometry with super-computer analysis. I successfully defended a thesis covering two years of my work. After that I went to Eastern Virginia Medical School. The focus of EVMS is primary care. I thought I wanted to be an Otolaryngology-Head and Neck surgeon. After a few 24 plus hour-long surgeries, my enthusiasm for it waned. I applied to Anatomic and Clinical Pathology residency and I matched at VCU Medical Center. During my third year, I applied to the Forensic Pathology Fellowship during my rotation.

Q: Why do you want to be a forensic pathologist?

A: Forensic pathology allows you to do both physical and mental work. You also get to work with excellent people in many interesting and varied fields.

Q: What kind of education/training do you need to become a forensic pathologist?

A: To start off, four years of college and taking your MCAT before you graduate if you want to go straight into medical school. Four years of medical school, four years of pathology residency, successful completion of clinical and anatomical pathology boards, a one-year forensic pathology fellowship, and successful completion of forensic pathology boards.

Q: What advice would you give to students who want to do what you do?

A: When you are in college, do research and get published in anything scientific. The more involved you can become in the doing of science, the better. Chemistry and physics are under-represented as majors among applicants to medical school. If you can, write and defend a thesis.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

A: I usually arrive at the office around 7:30 a.m. We have a meeting with the medicolegal death investigators to discuss all of the cases that have come in within the last 24 hours. After the meeting, I start the autopsies for the cases I have been assigned. An external exam is first, photographs are taken, X-rays are done, fingerprinting and documentation of the clothing and personal effects. Then the internal exam starts. After the autopsy, if there is any evidence, it is packaged for the investigating law enforcement agency to pick up. I like to dictate my cases right away. Then, it’s lunchtime and after that I edit previously dictated cases and read through police reports and medical records on other cases. We get micro slides on all of our autopsies so I look at those before afternoon meetings, where the pathologists and other fellows discuss the autopsies performed that morning. Depending on the day, I may be on-call for external exams, death calls, and death scenes. I try to study for my forensic pathology boards each day.

Dr. Austin Wiles
Forensic Pathology Fellow